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Richter Takes Readers Beyond Smoke and Mirrors

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Burton Richter
Burton Richter shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1976 for his work on the discovery of the J/ψ meson in 1974. In 1984 he was named the director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. During his time as director, he oversaw the completion of the Stanford Linear Collider and its challenging startup as it came online in the late eighties and early nineties. In 1994 he served as President of APS. Over the last decade and a half Richter has gotten deeply involved in issues of energy and the environment and has been able to devote more time to it since stepping down as head of SLAC in 1999. He recently completed Beyond Smoke and Mirrors; Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century, to give readers a concise overview of the facts, the policy issues, and the myths of this controversial topic, available now through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Cambridge Press. He talked to APS News recently about the topics he raises. An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in this month's print edition.

What is your book about?

Well the book is an attempt to write for the general public on climate change, energy, what we know, what the uncertainties are, how to do something about it, what our options are both technically and in policy. The general public, the broad public, has a real problem in that they are sandwiched between two groups which I call the deniers and the exaggerators. The media loves conflict, so what the media always likes to do is to set up the extremes and let them battle it out because they think it gets more attention, which it certainly does, but it doesn’t do a lot to clarify the issues, if I can put it that way. So this is my attempt to do it. What I've done is to try and write for the general public and put in some technical things at the end of the chapters, there are technical notes at the end of the chapters for that part of the public that I call the 'Scientific American crowd,' the people who like to read about the scientific details. So that's what it is, and we'll see how it does.

What was your motivation to write the book?
Since I stepped down as the director of SLAC, I was spending more and more of my time on these energy and environmental and policy issues and as I said at the very beginning here, I found that there wasn’t really anything for the public that told the story in an understandable way so that you can convince the public that we've got a problem, but we don't know exactly how big the problem is, but nonetheless its potentially so big that we better start doing something about it now. Now I stick my neck out in this book because when I talk about either technical solutions or policy solutions, I grade them as "winners," "losers" and "maybes" and I am quite sure that some of the things that I list as losers will excite some criticism and some that I list as winners will excite some criticism, whether its on the policy side or the technical side.


Is one of your goals to stir up some controversy?
Some of the goal is to get the public to understand enough so that they will get Washington moving. There is no Red-State, Blue-State divide outside of Washington DC. I live on the West Coast, you're off on the East Coast. West Coast there's a compact between a whole bunch of red states and blue states, republican governors, democratic governors, republican legislatures, Democratic legislatures, on doing something about greenhouse gas emissions. There's a similar thing in New England. But when you get to Washington it just becomes extremely politicized and the only way we're going to break through that is if the public understands enough about this to make certain that the people in Washington know that they're not going to stand for this sort of stuff anymore. So I have hopes that this book will add some clarity to things. It's not an easy book to write. I don't know how many lectures you've tried to give to the general public but it's much harder to talk to the public than it is to talk to students or colleagues. Students and colleagues share a whole bunch of background with you and they also share a certain depth of knowledge, and the public doesn't have that, so you have to be very careful about your imagery and your analogies. They've got to be understandable but they've also got to be honest. Not such an easy job. I like giving lectures to the general public, and I like the questions and answers part that comes after, and I hope I've done a good job here with the book.

Why did you choose the title "Beyond Smoke and Mirrors?"
If you look at the introduction I say that you can take "Beyond Smoke and Mirrors" two different ways, and I meant them both ways. One is to get behind all the rhetoric. The other is to get past what's happening with coal and solar for example. It has a double meaning, and I meant the double meaning and besides it sounds good.

At the end of the book, you go into some of the solutions that you see as "smart" and some that you say are "dumb." What are some of the solutions you see as smart, and what are some of the ones you see as not so smart?
Here's an example of one that California has done that I think is a loser. They have put in something called a "low carbon fuel standard" for automobile fuels. So what does this mean? this means that by 2020 for the same amount of energy out, fuel has to put out 10 percent less greenhouse gas than it does today. That sounds good, except that if you think about a car, it isn’t just the fuel that determines what the greenhouse gas emissions are, it's what comes out of the tailpipe. So if I (as the EPA has done) say "Ok auto manufacturers, thirty five miles per gallon by 2016," That reduces emission by 40 percent, and a lot faster too. If I switch to a diesel engine for the same energy, diesel engines are more efficient than gasoline engines. So with today's diesel engines and today's diesel fuel I already do about fifteen percent better than gasoline, so why should you add this complexity to something when what you're trying to do is reduce emissions and why do you think you're so smart as to tell the auto world how they should do it, rather than tell them what they should do. I am perfectly in agreement with the notion that we should tell them what to do, and in fact if you look at the energy efficiency study, I chaired the group, that the APS put out; we said that it's perfectly reasonable to say demand fifty miles per gallon for single fuel vehicles by 2025 or 2030. So I don't like regulations that specify how, I like regulations that specify what." I don't think we're smart enough to know how technology is going to evolve over a long time.

Another example which I think is really maximum stupid is corn ethanol. Everybody knows that corn ethanol, when you account for land use changes, averaged over the US is worse than gasoline for emissions. Why are we mandating corn ethanol? You know perfectly well why we're mandating it; both parties are looking for votes in the Corn Belt. As soon as one party made a slight step in that direction the other party had to go along with it so were spending huge amounts of money for nothing. Those are two quick examples, there's a lot more.

What's one you see as a good potential solution?

In technology I think the best things for now are substitution natural gas for coal where you could make a huge impact very fast and at rather low cost. You don't get any credit for doing that in the present system. You get credit for putting in solar cells, but solar cells produce electricity for a huge amount of expense. Electricity from solar cells is 25 cents per kilowatt hour compared to five or six cents for a gas fired power plant; so why are we doing that? Eventually solar cells will be terrific and we'll have the energy storage that goes with them to make them practical. I'm all for solar cells but I'm also for doing things that can have a big impact at minimum cost. Energy efficiency is another such thing. My pets are energy efficiency, substitute natural gas for coal, nuclear power which will certainly be controversial, and getting renewables like wind up to a reasonable level while we figure out how to take care of the variability of wind. Right now you can't really handle that well.

Why do you think global warming has been a controversial issue?
There are a lot of economic interests that are going t o be affected by the changes that have to come if we're going to combat global warming. Look at what I just said; substitute natural gas for coal. We've got coal states where the state economy is dependent on what comes from the sales of coal. We have other places where gas is the winner. So you get this kind of tension politically between one and the other.

There are two real controversies here. One is the national controversy; the other is the international controversy. The national controversy is what happens economically. Who are the winners and who are the losers in the U.S. when you start changing what you do? There are certain people who, for reasons I don't understand, like senator Inhofe, who claim the whole thing is a fraud and it's just a scheme by the science community to get more money, but let's set those people aside and look at those other economic issues. Internationally the big problem is that energy use and economic development are coupled together. If you want your GNP to rise, your energy use is going to rise and right now it means your emissions are going to rise. So here we are with developed countries, the industrialized nations and the developing countries and the developing countries say "we're poor you're rich, we need to grow our energy use to become rich" and the industrialized countries say "we're rich and we don't want to get poor so we don’t want to cut our energy use drastically." So there are all those forces and you have to devise a politically effective way of institution a program that’s going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's going to allow the developing nations to increase their per capita income, it's not going to begger the industrialized nations, and it's going to be full of messy political controversy.

How well do you think scientists have responded to these controversies?

Let's start with the science. Actually the notion that greenhouse gasses would affect the temperature is rather an old one…In the late 1890s it was already known that if you doubled the greenhouse gasses, you'd increase the average temperature of the Earth by four of five degrees centigrade. They even did some calculations about whether we should be worrying about it, and they came to the conclusion based on the economics and science understanding of those days, that it would take a thousand years to double the CO2 level in the atmosphere. A thousand years is so long and you can’t predict what's going to happen, and they jus said "eh, we'll think about it, but we don’t have to think about it now." They did not envisage the revolution in public health which led to increasing life span, to a booming population, to economic development, and that was part of the change.

The other part of the change happened in the 1950s when Roger Revelle reanalyzed the oceans ability to absorb carbon dioxide and found that it had been overestimated by a factor of ten. So what we had was all of the sudden the oceans couldn’t take it up so fast and the economy was booming and generating it much faster than anybody thought in the 1890s, and doubling went from a thousand years to a hundred years, and here we are. The science community responded pretty well and pretty fast. The science community broadly got worried in 1970, governments only got worried in 1992 with the Rio Earth Summit and tried to respond with the first Kyotyo treaty and now we are where we are. So the science has evolved, and the rate of economic development and the amount of energy used each year has gone up faster than anybody thought, so here we are.

What is the hardest thing about convincing the public and policy makers about how important of an issue this is?
The problem I think is that the consequences are far in the future but you're asking for action now. I'm not going to see any effect, I'm an old guy, I'm retired, but my little granddaughters, aged five and a half and three, they're going to see a big effect. So the effects are downstream and you're asking people to spend money now and if you look at the science, there are considerable uncertainties in it, and it's going to take time to reduce those uncertainties. If you look at the IPCC fourth report, their scenario is called A1FI, but it's pretty close to what people would call business as usual, that is we continue on the present track with the same mix of fuels, and they get a temperature rise of between, if I remember this right, something between two and six or seven degrees centigrade. Since I talk to audiences here I'll put in Fahrenheit, four degrees to twelve degrees Fahrenheit. That's a big range. And if you look at how long it's going to narrow that range up, I believe it's going be twenty to thirty years (I say why in one of the chapters, why it's going to take us that long to know whether we're heading for the low end or the high end). So it's very easy to say, "well its uncertain, it's not going to happen for a hundred years, let's wait." And unfortunately the longer you wait the more expensive and the harder the problem is to solve.

Would you say you're pessimistic or optimistic about the future?
No I'm optimistic about the future. If was pessimistic I wouldn't have bothered writing the book. I would have just pulled the covered over my head and enjoyed myself. For example I think that this so-called Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill in the Senate that’s working its way through is a much better starting point than the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House. It's more modest in its start, and it takes lessons from other people's experience, and if it ever gets out of the senate, I think there's actually a reasonable chance that it would get enacted.

Do you get into the controversial topic of geo-engineering at all in the book?
I dismiss it. I discuss it a little bit and basically what I'm saying about it is that you should be extremely suspicious because the geo-engineering people have not put in any real amount of work to try and find the second order effects of what they want to do. They say "Ok, let's put lots more water vapor into the air, that'll make more clouds, that'll reflect sunlight back into space, so that'll cool the planet." But they don't say and they haven't done any work to see if that will change ocean currents, will that change patterns of rainfall. If I change the gulfstream I'm going to freeze Europe, I'm not going to boil it. What they're doing is they're trying to balance one large scale effect with another large scale effect and when you take two things, both of which have big effects, and include all of their uncertainties, you don't know what's going to come out of it. So if the geo-engineers want to be taken seriously, they need to do a lot more work and as I said if it were up to me I'd put the people that do the geo-engineering experiments on a large scale in jail.

Any other thoughts?
I would just like to end with just one conclusion which I may have already said; Politics is harder than physics, and getting all of this together and into a coherent shape and getting something done is not going to be easy, we shouldn't expect it to be easy, but we have to keep on going and above all, we've got to get the real story out to the general public in a way they can understand and that's what I'm trying to do.

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Editor: Alan Chodos