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Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2010
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.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2010
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.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2011
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."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2011
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2014
Burton Richter intended for his book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century to be read by any person curious about global climate change; no scientific background required. In my experience, the topic was challenging to comprehend because of the many layers to solving this large-scale problem. Richter is straightforward about the past and current situation of greenhouse gas emissions and backs it up with compelling reasons to be concerned. But like a psychic’s reading, his depiction of the future is both frightening and confusing. Richter calls for action on a global scale and throws in some complicated information about the economics behind doing so. I was entertained by the abundance of facts but was overwhelmed reading through the many layers of the steps it will take to reduce the problem.
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Author Burton Richter is a Nobel-winning physics professor with a strong interest in the environment. He begins by telling us there is no single technology that will solve all our problems, and that energy supply is the area with the most senseless and self-serving calls to action (eg. biofuels, 'drill, baby, drill'). The poorest nations use very little energy and can be left alone until they climb several rungs on the development ladder; those in rapid-growth (eg. China and India) cannot be left out of the solution. China has already passed the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and developing nations collectively are expected to surpass industrialized ones in 15 - 20 years.

None of the man-made gases contribute as much to keeping our planet warm as ordinary water vapor. Less than 0.01% of the energy reaching the Earth's surface comes from its molten core. Total power incoming from the Sun in one hour equals all forms of energy used by man in a year. The small human population of the last ice age could move around to where climatic conditions were tolerable; today's 6+ billion cannot.

The ocean is the largest CO2 reservoir, holding about 40,000 gigatons (gigaton = 1 billion metric tons), land is next at 2,000 gigatons, and the atmosphere is at 750 gigatons. Global carbon emissions into the 2007 atmosphere total about 7 gigatons, with half absorbed by land and the oceans. Roughly 3.5 gigatons more carbon goes into the ocean each year than comes out (eg. evaporation). As the temperature of the water increases, the solubility of CO2 decreases. Some believe the beginning of agriculture about 6,000 years ago began upsetting the CO2 balance, but there's no evidence of significant change then - until our recent population explosion. New agricultural and land use changes are estimated to be responsible for 30% of greenhouse emissions.

Methane (natural gas) is the second most important greenhouse gas. It has increased from about 0.5 ppm to 2 ppm, and contributes about 25% to today's climate change.

Energy use is responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. Energy intensity in the U.S. economy has declined about 1%/year since 1800; China's 2005 - 20 goal was to reduce this 4%/year. Meanwhile, world population grew from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 3 billion in 1960 and 6 billion in 2000 - fortunately, that growth is slowing down. Long-term economic growth is estimated at 1.6% for the industrialized world, nearly double that for developing areas - total world GDP is estimated to grow 9X between 2000 and 2100, creating a 4X increase in primary energy demand - assuming business as usual.

Energy supply is the area where one finds most of the senseless and self-serving calls to action - eg. eliminating all fossil fuels from our electricity supply in the next ten years, increasing the amount of corn-based ethanol in gasoline (does almost nothing to decrease emissions, if emissions from ethanol production are included). Currently, 40% of the world's CO2 emissions from energy come from both oil and coal, with the remaining 20% from natural gas. Oil produces about 75% of the CO2 emission of coal for the same energy, while natural gas only 50%.

The energy coming to the sunlit side of the Earth in one hour equals the total energy use by mankind from all sources in one year.

Middle Eastern OPEC oil is the least costly to extract and there is estimated to be over one trillion barrels available. There is so little deepwater and Super Deep available that it isn't worth talking about. Average oil extraction with today's technology is only about 35% of the total available. Canadian tar sands require 15 - 30% of their energy content to extract the material and turn it into useful oil. Richter contends the world can continue its profligate use of fossil energy for the next 50 years, though admits there are major possibilities for more energy via methane hydrates under Arctic land and water.

The average age of U.S. electrical generating plants is 35 years, built before global warming was an issue. Only 35% of the primary energy in the fuel is transformed into electricity and only 31% of the fuel energy reaches consumers; 40% of the energy in gas becomes electricity. Modern coal plants run at 48% and gas at 60% efficiency. Combining gas' better efficiency with its lower CO2 emissions yields a 2/3 reduction in CO@ for the same amount of electricity.

Refrigerators today use 23% of the energy their 1972 counterparts did, gas furnaces 77%, central A/C 605. Residences consume about 22% of U.S. energy, commercial buildings 18%. Top contributors to residence energy use are heating (32%), cooling (13%), water heating (13%), and lighting (12%). For commercial buildings it is 27% lighting, 15% heating, 14% cooling, 7% water heating.

The problem for power plant carbon capture is separating it from the 80% nitrogen in the air - doing so lowers electricity generating efficiency by 9 percentage points, and there's still the costs of transporting it and pumping it underground or into the sea. Ocean 'burial' doesn't work well - 50% at a depth of 2,500' would return by the end of the next century; there simply isn't enough underground (depleted wells) to serve as a cure for over a year.

The transportation sector uses 28% of all primary energy (95% oil based), buildings 39% (including electricity), and industry the rest. In a 'normal' car over 60% of the energy is lost to friction and heat in the engine, 17% to idling, and 2% to operate accessories - only about 18% becomes engine output, and 1/3 of that goes to overcome drag, rolling resistance, and braking. Electric drive is about 90% efficient in getting energy to the wheels, vs. 12% for gas. Diesel engines in Europe have about 30% better fuel economy than gas engines.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2010
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2014
The author probably deserves 5 stars, but the material it covers is so dry that although I was enlightened by the book, I did not enjoy it. I met the author at a pro-nuclear energy film event. He was introduced as the chief scientific adviser for the film. I asked him for a recommendation of an information source that presents the world's climate situation in a scientific and unbiased way. He provided the names of two books, one being his. Of course, I initially selected the other book, but it had a European perspective on the issue, citing several region specific political issues. So I switched to this book for a US perspective. Although his book still recommends increases nuclear power generation, the author also is open with the problems of this type of energy. His balanced presentation of nuclear energy provided credibility that his presentation of other energy generation methods were also balanced and fair.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2013
Exellent information about various forms of traditional energy forms, renewables, transportion and storage of energy with impacts on CO2 emissions. One thing lacking was serious attention to the water requirements for energy extraction and the impact that has on water resources and population distribution.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2010
I am filled with admiration for Burton Richter's accomplishment in writing this book. Kenneth Arrow summed up my estimation of it in a blurb on the cover: "Burt Richter has packed a remarkable amount of two very important commodities in a short compass: reliable information on energy and climate change and (even rarer) good judgement." The book is well organized and written in a pleasant, engaging style accessible to any intelligent reader. And most important, although he is comprehensively informed on the subject and thoroughly conversant with the science, Nobel laureate Richter has no dog in this race. His facts and conclusions are scrupulously unbiased. I recommend this book to anybody who wants to know the true facts---and the uncertainties---about the energy problem and global warming.
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