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Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century Hardcover – Apr 12 2010

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 21 reviews
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Finally a reasonable voice in the climate debate July 8 2010
By Stephen M. Curry - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
After hearing and reading a great deal in the popular press about climate change caused by human activities, I became convinced that most of what one hears on this subject is highly biased and unreliable. The problem is that almost everyone who speaks out on this controversial subject has either an economic interest, a political interest, or a professional career interest to advance by taking a biased or extreme position. Seeking a balanced and unbiased presentation of this topic, I found it in this excellent and highly readable book by Burton Richter. As a Nobel Laureate in physics with extremely high intelligence and none of these special interests to influence him, he seems to be the ideal person to tell the straight story.

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.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Good but Limited Dec 22 2010
By Allan Mazur - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This short book, written in first person style, is an excellent overview of global (and U.S.) fuel use as it pertains to climate change. Richter reiterates the virtual concensus among climate scientists that human activity, primarily burning fossil fuels but also land use practices, is causing global temperature to rise, and that this is a serious concern. Taking a basically conservative approach, he labels various proposal for improvement as "winners" or "losers," and backs these judgements with good if subjective reasoning. Nuclear power is a winner, corn ethanol a loser. I'm convinced.

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.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Finally a clear statement on climate change, energy and our role Jan. 29 2011
By Henk in Gainesville, FL - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This clear and compact statement on the most important environmental, technical, social and political challenge for the 21th Century can be, indeed should be required reading for all who are deniers, or confused, or uninformed. We have a problem with climate warming, and the case for us being almost entirely responsible is made logically, concisely and convincingly. Our energy use derived from fossil fuels is the major culprit, and Richter addresses all alternatives for their merits, drawbacks and potentials. The policy hurdles to be overcome, nationally and internationally, are great but not insurmountable. Our global awareness of the problem is growing. Wide readings of Richter's book can greatly help to speed this process.

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."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
My Review Oct. 7 2011
By Steve - Published on
Format: Paperback
Beyond Smoke and Mirrors provides a valuable foundation in understanding a subject that continues to be a source of controversy at the basic level, as one candidate for President has even questioned whether global warming is man-made (the answer to which Richter's book leaves no doubt). The solutions, it seems, will take generations to accomplish and can only come from an immediate, consistent focus on tackling the problems from many fronts. Rather than eliminating the problem, solutions will likely look to stabilizing or reducing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Government's role, according to Richtor, is to provide the support, incentives and sanctions that will help assure that the efforts are undertaken. In particular, the book's Part II (which makes up more than half its pages) is a resource to which readers can continue to return in considering the viability and efficiency of developing technologies such as solar, geothermal, and wind energy versus nuclear energy. It may take more than one reading, as the issues and solutions are multi-layered. Richtor's book provides science-based methods of measuring impact and costs that can be used to balance what is read and seen in the media and heard from industry leaders and politicians who may have vested interests in various technologies. Despite the fact that it is written for non-scientists, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors is not easy reading, but it is as reader-friendly as the subject allows. Everyone is and will continue to feel the impact of the information and issues presented in this highly credible, important resource.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Buy This Book Aug. 9 2010
By A. K. Edwards - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a very informative book. As the author states he wanted to write a book about global warming and energy matters for the general population. He succeeded. There are compelling arguments that global warming is real, but the meat of the book has to do with energy and energy sources.