Smoke and Mirrors:
Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century
By Burton Richter
Cambridge University Press, 218 pages.
Do we really another book summarizing the science of climate change and the available response options? Sure. Why not? What’s the harm? In this era of hyperfractionated audiences and echo-chambers, there’s no such thing as too many arrows in our collective quiver. This one, by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter, doesn’t contribute anything new. But at this point in the conversation, there’s not much new to contribute, just novel approaches to making the argument that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for much longer without trashing the planet.
Richter has decided to reach out to an audience of educated but hitherto uninformed readers with a broad overview of climatology and the scientific, economic and political issues that will determine which fuels and electricity-generating technologies offer us a change of getting out the mess we’re in. This approach will bore those who are already familiar with each of the subjects. For those who haven’t sat down with a book-length treatment before, though, it covers most of the relevant issues in a mostly even-handed and easy-to-swallow manner.
It looks more like a text than a popular read, which isn’t surprising as it comes from Cambridge University Press. But don’t be fooled, this is definitely an attempt to expand some minds in the population at large.
It would be petty to complain that Richter gives short shrift to some of the subjects (power grid vulnerabilities) and dwells far too long on others (nuclear power). He won his Nobel for helping discover an elementary particle, not renewable energy, and like anyone he’s going to focus the most on those areas with which he is most comfortable. Still, the attention he pays to nuclear power generation does hint at a bias. Richter until recently served on the board of the U.S. subsidiary of the French nuclear reactor builder Areva, and I think it fair to object to his failure to point out just how expensive the technology has become.
On the other hand, Richter isn’t trying to hide his association with the industry and except for a couple of moments, manages to resist the temptation to unfairly dismiss the concerns of nuclear power opponents.
More problematic for me was his assumption that energy policy should embrace a target of stablizing the atmospheric CO2 concentration at 550 parts per million. This is basically an arbitrary number — twice the preindustrial level — rather than one based on the ecological consequences. A more useful target is the cumulative emissions of CO2. Or, if a concentration number is really needed, 450 ppm enjoys wider scientific support among those speculating about what might trigger feedbacks and tipping points. Others add that stabilizing at 550 or even 450 would be foolish. What we need is to keep the peak at 450 and then aiming for nothing more than 350 ppm.
This isn’t nitpicking, as the higher goal seems to inform much of Richter’s approach to solving the problem. The higher the number the less urgent the need to switch to zero-carbon sources, but Richter repeatedly us that we should be embracing any technology that lowers emissions, not demanding pure, clean energy in every instance.
This “don’t let the the perfect be the enemy of the good” argument is fine in politics and it works well in many real-world cases. Natural gas, for example, is a fine transition fuel. But if we need to get moving fast enough to ensure emissions peak by 2015, then that dramatically reduces the useful contribution new nuclear power plants can make. At more than a decade to commission and build, we can’t afford to wait for them to come online.
Richter doesn’t get into that kind of detail in his overview. But it’s not a fatal flaw in the book, as what Beyond Smoke and Mirrors covers will probably only whet the appetite of the curious. When such readers explore the sources Richter recommends, they’re sure to come across the complexities missing in this otherwise useful introduction.