Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century

By Burton Richter, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2010 (226 pp.), $29.99 paperback ISBN 978-0-521-74781-3, $99.00 hardback ISBN 978-0-521-76384-4

Reviewed by Steven R. Rogers

This book is a call to action. It is written by a concerned grandfather who happens also to be a Nobel laureate in physics, a former director of SLAC, and a member of many US and international committees for the study of climate change and energy issues. The title Beyond Smoke and Mirrors is meant as a double entendre. First, “smoke” refers to pollution of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases, and “mirrors” relates to one possible solution, namely, concentrated solar energy. The other, more ominous, meaning is that the book aims to reveal the “real story behind the collection of sensible, senseless, and self-serving arguments” that have characterized the climate debate. Incidentally, one should not confuse this book with another titled Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration by Douglas S. Massey.

This slim volume is divided into three parts, all of which are easily accessible to undergraduates and adults who read Scientific American or the science section of the New York Times. Part I deals with atmospheric physics and chemistry. There is incontrovertible evidence of a rapid rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, from a pre-industrial level of 270 ppm at the end of the 18th century to the current level of about 380 ppm. The climatic implications of this 40% increase are brought home by comparing Earth’s climate with that of Mars, with no greenhouse effect, and Venus, with a runaway greenhouse effect. To be sure, our climate models are imperfect at predicting the exact rate of temperature rise, because of the many complicated interactions and feedback mechanisms between the oceans, biosphere, and atmosphere. However, Richter argues that the consequences of inaction are too dire for the issue to be ignored until our models can be perfected. This is true even if we choose to believe the most optimistic predictions of temperature increase, and to disregard the possibility of a catastrophic “tipping point” in the Earth’s response to increased carbon levels.

Part II deals with energy alternatives that may help curtail greenhouse emissions and stabilize the atmospheric carbon dioxide level at, say, 550 ppm. The discussion compares the emissions caused by the production of base-load electricity using natural gas and nuclear fuel instead of coal and oil, and also compares these with such “renewable” sources as solar, hydroelectric and geothermal power, and wind and wave energy. Here, Richter comes out strongly–perhaps too strongly--in favor of nuclear energy. Unfortunately, this pits the climate problem against the other existential problem of our times, namely the annihilation of mankind by nuclear weapons. Although Richter claims that there are technical solutions for the storage of nuclear waste, and political solutions for the prevention of nuclear proliferation, his arguments are somewhat less than convincing. In addition, the decade or more needed to commission and build new nuclear power plants means that they will contribute to reducing carbon levels only after 2020.

On the subject of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells for electricity generation, Richter feels that widespread adoption still requires a major decrease in cost. This may have been true at the time of the book’s writing; however, in the eighteen months leading up to its publication, the cost of PV modules dropped some forty percent. In the US, since the 1990’s, the cost of solar PV electricity has gone from five times to just twice the cost of electricity from fossil fuels and wind. As a result, the DOE is expected to issue a new set of goals for 2030, with solar PV providing as much as ten percent of US electricity requirements.

Part II also deals with improving energy efficiency in transportation and buildings. In this regard, it is noteworthy that California is taking the lead in the US with its zero net energy (ZNE) building requirements, but that the US is lagging much of the developed world. For example, Israel, Spain, Germany, India, China, and South Korea all mandate the use of solar energy for domestic heat and hot water, whereas the US does not.

Part III is a streamlined discussion of national and world policy options, such as cap and trade, emission fees, and the 1997 Kyoto protocol. The book does not deal with the December 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change. The difficulties of formulating a global policy for limiting greenhouse gas emissions are daunting. First, climate change occurs over long time scales, so it is easily pushed off the public agenda by other, more immediate problems. Second, limits on carbon emissions face steep political opposition whenever they inhibit short-term economic growth. Third, because the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is a global problem, it only can be solved through a worldwide consensus of developed and developing nations. As Richter emphatically points out, “politics–particularly international politics–is much harder than physics.” This is all too true.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is its candor, or political incorrectness. Each major energy or policy section ends with a list of winners, losers, and maybes, in which Richter clearly states his evaluation of competing solutions. For example, Richter classifies the use of US biofuels based on corn ethanol as a definite loser, saying that it can have only bad effects on food prices with little if any effect on climate change. Examples of clear winners are an emission fee on gasoline, which will encourage consumers to buy cars with better mileage, and federal mile-per-gallon standards for the auto industry.

The book ends with an exhortation: “If we do nothing, it is our grandchildren who will begin to see the worst effects of climate change, and it is our grandchildren for whom we should all be working.” Richter deserves our thanks for devoting his time and energy to convincing the general public that “business as usual” is no longer an option, and that a concerted effort is urgently needed to keep greenhouse Earth livable.

Steven R. Rogers
a concerned physicist and parent

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.