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Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century Hardcover – Apr 12 2010
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"The climate naysayers will surely challenge Burton Richter: What makes a mere physics professor an expert on climate change, even if he holds a Nobel Prize for finding some exotic particle inside the atom?
The answer: The Stanford professor has been researching issues of energy and climate since 1978 as a member of Jason, an independent group of scientists who advise the government on major policy questions, and he is increasingly concerned that controversies over climate change and energy have become ominously political, and the debates are flaring beyond reason.
Richter's book is the clearest guide yet to the facts and issues of climate and energy - without smoke or mirrors.
Richter has no special interest, and his book's survey of all the evidence for climate change and all the available energy sources is a model of rational discourse in this time of inflammatory arguments." -SF Chronicle
"Global warming and a host of energy problems are in the news every day. In this new book, Nobel Laureate Burt Richter offers a smart and careful survey of the problem and a dose of sobriety on real solutions. Rare in the field, the book is both well-informed yet accessible and written in elegant prose. The core of the study is a series of short yet far-ranging chapters on all the world's major energy sources and their opportunities for improvement. Richter's masterful study is stuffed full of optimism about solving the global warming problem, but it is also realistic about the scale of the effort that will be needed. And he warns that today, governments are falling far short in devising the required policies." - David G. Victor, Professor of International Relations, University of California, San Diego
"Burt Richter has packed a remarkable amount of two very important and rare commodities in a short compass: reliable information on energy and climate change and (even rarer) good judgment. He has done all this with a light touch and engaging style which will draw the intelligent reader's sustained interest. The reader will be able to improve greatly the level of the important debates on policy in these fields." - Kenneth J. Arrow, Joan Kenney Professor of Economics, Emeritus and Professor of Operations Research, Emeritus, Stanford University
"A brilliant display of ideas and information about energy and climate change: readable, educational, constructive. A wonderful book that sets out with clarity the issues and challenges. I enjoyed this book and I'm sure it will have a wide readership." - George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State (Reagan administration); Distinguished Fellow, Stanford University
"Finally, citizens and policymakers have a comprehensive and comprehensible guide to global warming and what might be done about it. Written by a Nobel prize-winning physicist with no interest other than making the world habitable for his great-grandchildren, this eminently readable book covers the gamut of issues from basic climate science and economics to the policies and technologies necessary to mitigate global warming." - Paul Brest, President, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
"The facts about climate change and the responses to it are the subject of substantial confusion among the public. Burton Richter, a Nobel Laureate in physics, has written a cogent analysis of what is known - and not known - about climate change and about the components of the energy system that contribute to climate change or that are offered as a means to mitigate it. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: A Citizen's Guide to Climate Change and Energy brings sophisticated insights and common sense to the issues, but is fully accessible to the public. This book should be required reading for anyone who seeks to understand one of the most significant global challenges that confronts humankind." - Richard A. Meserve, President of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Former Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
"I enjoyed the book and the lively personal way Richter writes. Readers, once they start, will want to read the book right through to the end. I did. The chapters on energy were wonderful and made me hope that the book will be widely read." - James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford
"This new book is another important contribution to the semitechnical literature on the human components of climate change: what they are, what expected impacts they will have over the next decades, and what can be done to mitigate the effects. ... In summary, this is an admirably succinct book which effectively presents the key aspects of climate change, human energy use, and the options of changing the latter to help mitigate the effects of the former. It will be a valuable read for anyone concerned about these issues--highly recommended." - William R. Green, The Leading Edge
"'Please point me to a short overview of energy and climate, with numbers but not equations, and with a no-nonsense view of the politics.' This request has been put to me in one version or another dozens of times. At last, I am comfortable with my answer: Read Beyond Smoke and Mirrors. It is an unpretentious yet deeply insightful book by Burton Richter, a physicist at Stanford and Nobel Laureate. ... Smoke and mirrors are the tools of deception, and by contrast Richter is promising to talk straight. With his title, Richter is acknowledging that a large proportion of the energy literature available to the layman is promotional--a sales pitch for this, a sales pitch for that. He is asking us to trust him, and we do. For example, he tells us that he is "a biofuels skeptic," and he takes ten pages to explain why, stressing impacts on food supply, net-carbon issues, and the thus far unrealized claims from the research community. Such candor is rare and refreshing." - Robert H. Socolow, American Journal of Physics
"...a wonderfully balanced overview. It opens with a fine summary of the science linking carbon to climate ... provides a concise primer on the economics of long-term climate policy, and concludes with a short, sensible, and well-argued set of opinions and policy recommendations." - Physics Today
"It is rare that a scientist with the credentials of the author, Burton Richter, 1976 Nobel Laureate in Physics, attempts to communicate to society in a way that makes such an intimidating and contentious topic as climate change and the complexity of the associated energy issues that must be tackled seem easy to understand. This is a brilliant book written in a very informal way yet packed with easily understood information. Richter's judgment is superb in assessing the role that the various possible solutions may play in averting a global warming catastrophe. His long experience as an energy advisor to US governments shows clearly in this discussion. He manages to communicate calmly but objectively the urgency of tackling the issues under discussion. ... Richter has been extremely successful in presenting the big picture about the implications of climate change and how the rise in global mean temperature can be minimized. ... It should be on the reading list for 2011 of all concerned citizens. Physicists should read this book because it is a template for how they should proselytize about science to the general public. As Richter observes "I have learned one thing: politics - particularly international politics - is much harder than physics". This reviewer can only add that the effort to communicate to the political system is well worth the effort." - Harvey A. Buckmaster, Canadian Association of Physicists
"...the author adequately outlined the past, current and future effects on greenhouse gas emissions without requiring the reader to have any preconceived notions of the topic. I would recommend anyone with an interest in climate change to read this book with complete understanding toward those with a background in high school level general science." CMOS Bulletin
"As a compendium of vital energy information, clear facts on climate change and insights into how political decisions about energy are made in the U.S. and the world, Richter's book is an invaluable resource. EnviroLine" EnviroLine
An insightful overview of climate change science and sustainable energy provision that assesses our options for averting potentially disastrous consequences of global warming. Written in non-technical language by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, this book allows readers to form their own conclusions on sustainable energy provision and climate change.See all Product Description
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And tell it he does, in a very clear English that anyone can read. The few portions of the book that are even slightly technical are designated with a grey background so the reader can skip them if desired. He describes each problem and each possible solution in ways that show how large or small a contribution it makes to the big picture. The end result is a very balanced and reasonable overview of the entire global energy usage and greenhouse gas story.
In summary, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to look past the "smoke and mirrors" of the climate change and energy usage debate to discover the facts that should help guide us to a more sustainable energy future.
But there are some shortcomings. Richter, or more accurately, his wife, is an ethusiast for electric cars, and Richter gives a good discussion of these but strangely shys away from the fact that in the U.S., half the energy that would power pure electric cars, or electricity for plug-in hybrids, is produced by burning coal, the worst greenhouse fuel. Whether or not electric cars, compared to regular hybrids, are a good bet for climate is an open question. I was suprised that Richter did not explore this issue, as he does corn-based ethanol.
Another curious omission is cogeneration, barely practiced in the U.S., though clearly it should be in the "winner" column. Richter points out that two-thirds of the energy in fossil fuels are wasted (lost as heat) in the production of electricity, but he does not mention the desirability and practicality of putting this "waste" heat to good use, whether in space heating or industrial processes.
A Nobel laureate in physics, Richter has studied his economics but should have gone further in the social sciences, perhaps taking a good sociology course. By now sociologists have pretty well demonstrated that industrialized nations, all of them high energy users, gain virtually nothing in measurable quality of life by using even more energy. The U.S. in particularly has no superior quality of life than nations of Europe, or Japan, that use less energy (and electricity) per capita. So why do we continually increase our consumption of fuels and especially of electricity? The reason, pretty clearly, is that each fuel, and electricity, has a constellation of producers and governmental supporters who encourage increased consumption because it serves their interests. This cannot be news to Richter because he properly brands corn ethanol as a sop to agribusiness, subsidized by government to gain political support in the Corn Belt states. But he shows no awareness that this is true more broadly. If electric cars, plug-in hybrids, are broadly adopted, it would be manna falling on the electrical industry and on Big Coal. Limiting climate change of course means limiting energy consumption, as Richter asserts, but he misses the larger point that it also means limiting the promotion of ever more consumption of energy, especially as electricity, by those who profit from it.
I have never read an exposition and analysis on this largely technical topic as cogently, accessible and yet numerically truthful as those in this book. Richter succeeds to keep the text, tables and graphs eminently simple, readable and understandable. He often delights the reader with his physicist's wit and utter independence of thinking. I wish it can be adopted as a required text book for high schools, and policy makers; the required numeracy is not exorbitant. Personally I was left with a sense of optimism that, with the clarity and completeness provided by Richter, we can all find our place to contribute to this multifaceted problem. The greatest challenge is presented by the politics, which "is much harder than physics."
The book is divided into three parts, the first being climate. Richter dives into the topic by explaining what is known. Earth’s average temperature is determined by both the energy coming from the sun and the energy radiating back out into space. Without the atmosphere and greenhouse effect, only the surface temperature would determine how much energy outflow was needed to balance the energy from the sun because none of the radiated energy would be blocked. To understand better how the greenhouse effect influences the climate, Richter gave extreme instances exemplified by other planets. For example, the incoming radiation from Venus is nearly twice the intensity of Earth’s. Without the greenhouse effect, Venus would be about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But because it has a very large, and not fully understood greenhouse effect, its temperature is actually 800 degrees. The lesson learned from Venus is that global-scale greenhouse changes can be dangerous. But at the same time, change needs to happen at a global scale and soon. Now that you and I are simultaneously engaged and worried, Richter gets into the nitty-gritty topics. For example, he explains climate modeling, which is used to study the climate system and make projections of future climate. If you are interested in the different opinions on how to solve this problem, great, I recommend continue reading. But, if you feel overwhelmed by the scale of this problem, you might want to stick to the Wikipedia page.
The next section, which accounts for the majority of the read, is about all of the world’s major energy sources and their opportunities to improve them. “About 70% of the anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases comes from the energy used to generate electricity, make buildings usable, run all transportation systems, and supply all the energy needs of industry. The rest comes from agriculture, changes in land-use patterns driven by the search for higher crop yields, and deforestation,” (65). We must find a way to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, but because of the increasing demand for energy the solution is not easy. But the longer we wait, the worse the consequences will be and the harder it will be to fix. Talk about a conundrum. Richter says that nuclear energy and renewable energy, can’t solve the greenhouse gas emission problem alone, but we should start off with nuclear energy supply until technologies provide us with a better solution. The availability of fossil fuels is not guaranteed beyond 2050 and that’s a serious problem. One reason Richter wrote this book for the average Joe is so that he will be scared out of his mind and be moved to influence Washington to get a move on. Richter’s plan is to use technology to substitute natural gas for coal. However, this affects the state of the economy because of the coal industry. So the government will have to weigh the short-term problem of economic troubles with the long-term problem of global climate change.
The final portion of the book is the much dreaded policy section. Richter outlines three ways the government can make policies to fix this: do the same with less, put emissions somewhere else other than the atmosphere, or substitute fossil fuels with non- or low-emitting fuels. Policy is challenging because politics inevitably comes into play. For instance, the government mandates corn ethanol because they are looking for votes in the corn belt. Money could be spent much better elsewhere but it all comes down to politics. Richter believes that the government should provide support and incentives to begin the process that will likely take generations to resolve. He outlines the good and the ugly policies to do this and admits that it is all very complicated. Basically, there are two large-scale options. The first is Cap and Trade, which is a market-based approach to control pollution by giving people incentives for reducing emissions. The government caps the amount of pollutant that can be emitted. Richter believes this model is biased towards the poor. The second is a carbon tax, which is a tax on motor vehicles’ CO2 emission. Both theories are multilayered and take many rereads to understand.
I believe this book has its place in some people’s bookshelves. I disagree with other reviews saying that anyone can easily read and enjoy its text. Don’t be fooled; this is not an easy A for your book report assignment. Facts I like, policies, not so much. In the grand scheme of things, I do believe that everyone should be aware about the dangers of the greenhouse effect. The reality is that it’s going to take a lot more than this book to change the way things are done. I even admit that 2050 feels like light-years away. I think this book is a good step in the right direction and if a small percentage of readers take away from this book a strong desire to take action, great. I hope they can be the ones to persuade Washington to buckle down and take Richter’s policies into effect.
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