LAST year, as Australia's movers and shakers devoted large slabs of their time furiously agreeing, then splitting hopelessly, on what might be done to limit climate change, an invitation was sent to Environment Minister Peter Garrett. Would he care to open an event that would draw together many of Australia's and the world's leading scientists to discuss, among other things, how the nation could take practical steps to reduce the amount of carbon belching into the atmosphere?
The conference would be held in Adelaide in September this year.
Weeks passed. Early this month, a reply arrived. ''Unfortunately Minister Garrett will be unable to attend due to prior commitments,'' it said. The reply suggested the organisers might contact Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. Wong's office let the organisers know that unfortunately, she couldn't make any commitments so far out from the event. She would make up her mind only four weeks before the conference actually occurred.
It was a splendid Catch-22. One minister responsible for Australia's environment had a prior engagement three-quarters of a year ahead; the other wouldn't decide until it was too late to slot her into the program.
Ministers, of course, are busy people. There could be an election in September. As things have panned out this week, Peter Garrett's tenure as Environment Minister might not even be guaranteed.
But could the ministers and their advisers have shied away for more complicated reasons?
The conference has the slightly alarming title of Chemeca2010, deriving from the organisations hosting it: the Institution of Chemical Engineers in Australia, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and the Society of Chemical Engineers New Zealand. Together, these bodies represent more than 100,000 engineers and chemists working around the world.
The comic book view of chemical engineers would portray boffins in thick spectacles presiding over bubbling vats of unmentionable concoctions in possibly evil industrial plants.
Chemical engineers, in fact, see the constituent parts of the world as atoms and molecules and figure out ways to convert them into useful or valuable materials. Look around your office, home or shops - anywhere, really - and just about everything you see and use has involved a chemical engineer. For every chemical engineer creating a cool new shampoo or a slicker motor oil there are masses more involved in biomedical research that save lives and all sorts of techniques for creating efficient and cleaner methods of energy. From the thermodynamics of steam power 160 years ago to the modern fuel cell, chemical engineers have been there.
Unsurprisingly, the conference being organised in Adelaide will have as a main focus the small matter of climate change and alternative energy sources. It will be one of the biggest such conferences in Australia, drawing about 500 serious minds together.
Practical minds.
''We want to look at all the alternatives and have a debate,'' says the organiser, Professor Mark Briggs, head of the school of chemical engineering at Adelaide University. Now there's a radical idea. ''We're not partisan. We're interested in looking at all the pluses and minuses of all the options. It's not a political fest or a forum for business chiefs to get up and talk like they do at Davos.''
No, it's just a confluence of minds weighing up ideas that hardly enter the broader political debate, which has swerved from arguments about an emissions trading scheme to sophistry about great big new taxes and climate cons. The market versus tree-planting.
Among the subjects the scientists want to discuss are the potential to power up a large part of the nation by tapping Australia's huge geothermal resources (hot water deep in the earth's crust, plenty of which lies unexploited beneath the electricity grid in Victoria, for instance); solar-thermal (that's the free stuff beamed upon our heads every day, the harnessing of which Australian scientists pioneered and in frustration at lack of national support took their systems off to places like California); and tidal power (the constant rise and fall of the oceans that surround us).
A glance at a small part of the Chemeca2010 program gives a flavour. Climate Change: Causes, Effects and Counter-strategies; Carbon Capture and Storage; Solar-thermal and Photovoltaic Energy; Geothermal Energy; The Hydrogen Economy; Biomass; Fuel Cells; Batteries and supercapacitors; Energy Storage.
Oh yes. And … errr … Nuclear Energy, a session to be addressed by Dr Ziggy Switkowski of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.
The mention of nuclear energy tends to cause cold sweat to trickle down the spines of politicians, and Briggs is moved to wonder whether Australia's two environment ministers might have found better things to do when they scanned the agenda.
''Maybe Mr Garrett and Senator Wong were concerned they'd be associated with controversy,'' he muses.
''If that is the case, it would be unfortunate, because we're not taking a stand. We just want to discuss everything. Nuclear is a very contentious subject and it's very unlikely that it could alone solve the problems affecting climate change.
''What we want to discuss is how to reach the right balance that makes environmental sense - what percentages of Australia's energy requirements could be assigned to all these various alternative technologies.
''What is frustrating is the public debate is at a very immature stage. Everyone focuses on the negatives of each option without looking at the big picture. It's all about how much money it's going to cost to change and whether it's a big tax.
''Well, of course it's going to cost money. It cost huge amounts of money to start the coal industry at the start of the Industrial Revolution. There are always start-up costs, but if you are in the vanguard of change, you're going to benefit, and when you start using new technologies, the cost comes down and you can make money by exporting the technology and the knowledge.
''If we do nothing, it's definitely going to cost us all eventually.''
It all sounds eminently sensible. Probably best that the politicians don't turn up.