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Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521747813
ISBN-10: 0521747813
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Editorial Reviews


"The climate naysayers will surely challenge Burton Richter: What makes a mere physics professor an expert on climate change, even if he holds a Nobel Prize for finding some exotic particle inside the atom?

The answer: The Stanford professor has been researching issues of energy and climate since 1978 as a member of Jason, an independent group of scientists who advise the government on major policy questions, and he is increasingly concerned that controversies over climate change and energy have become ominously political, and the debates are flaring beyond reason.

Richter's book is the clearest guide yet to the facts and issues of climate and energy - without smoke or mirrors.

Richter has no special interest, and his book's survey of all the evidence for climate change and all the available energy sources is a model of rational discourse in this time of inflammatory arguments." -SF Chronicle

"Global warming and a host of energy problems are in the news every day. In this new book, Nobel Laureate Burt Richter offers a smart and careful survey of the problem and a dose of sobriety on real solutions. Rare in the field, the book is both well-informed yet accessible and written in elegant prose. The core of the study is a series of short yet far-ranging chapters on all the world's major energy sources and their opportunities for improvement. Richter's masterful study is stuffed full of optimism about solving the global warming problem, but it is also realistic about the scale of the effort that will be needed. And he warns that today, governments are falling far short in devising the required policies." - David G. Victor, Professor of International Relations, University of California, San Diego

"Burt Richter has packed a remarkable amount of two very important and rare commodities in a short compass: reliable information on energy and climate change and (even rarer) good judgment. He has done all this with a light touch and engaging style which will draw the intelligent reader's sustained interest. The reader will be able to improve greatly the level of the important debates on policy in these fields." - Kenneth J. Arrow, Joan Kenney Professor of Economics, Emeritus and Professor of Operations Research, Emeritus, Stanford University

"A brilliant display of ideas and information about energy and climate change: readable, educational, constructive. A wonderful book that sets out with clarity the issues and challenges. I enjoyed this book and I'm sure it will have a wide readership." - George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State (Reagan administration); Distinguished Fellow, Stanford University

"Finally, citizens and policymakers have a comprehensive and comprehensible guide to global warming and what might be done about it. Written by a Nobel prize-winning physicist with no interest other than making the world habitable for his great-grandchildren, this eminently readable book covers the gamut of issues from basic climate science and economics to the policies and technologies necessary to mitigate global warming." - Paul Brest, President, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

"The facts about climate change and the responses to it are the subject of substantial confusion among the public. Burton Richter, a Nobel Laureate in physics, has written a cogent analysis of what is known - and not known - about climate change and about the components of the energy system that contribute to climate change or that are offered as a means to mitigate it. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: A Citizen's Guide to Climate Change and Energy brings sophisticated insights and common sense to the issues, but is fully accessible to the public. This book should be required reading for anyone who seeks to understand one of the most significant global challenges that confronts humankind." - Richard A. Meserve, President of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Former Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

"I enjoyed the book and the lively personal way Richter writes. Readers, once they start, will want to read the book right through to the end. I did. The chapters on energy were wonderful and made me hope that the book will be widely read." - James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford

"This new book is another important contribution to the semitechnical literature on the human components of climate change: what they are, what expected impacts they will have over the next decades, and what can be done to mitigate the effects. ... In summary, this is an admirably succinct book which effectively presents the key aspects of climate change, human energy use, and the options of changing the latter to help mitigate the effects of the former. It will be a valuable read for anyone concerned about these issues--highly recommended." - William R. Green, The Leading Edge

"'Please point me to a short overview of energy and climate, with numbers but not equations, and with a no-nonsense view of the politics.' This request has been put to me in one version or another dozens of times. At last, I am comfortable with my answer: Read Beyond Smoke and Mirrors. It is an unpretentious yet deeply insightful book by Burton Richter, a physicist at Stanford and Nobel Laureate. ... Smoke and mirrors are the tools of deception, and by contrast Richter is promising to talk straight. With his title, Richter is acknowledging that a large proportion of the energy literature available to the layman is promotional--a sales pitch for this, a sales pitch for that. He is asking us to trust him, and we do. For example, he tells us that he is "a biofuels skeptic," and he takes ten pages to explain why, stressing impacts on food supply, net-carbon issues, and the thus far unrealized claims from the research community. Such candor is rare and refreshing." - Robert H. Socolow, American Journal of Physics

"...a wonderfully balanced overview. It opens with a fine summary of the science linking carbon to climate ... provides a concise primer on the economics of long-term climate policy, and concludes with a short, sensible, and well-argued set of opinions and policy recommendations." - Physics Today

"It is rare that a scientist with the credentials of the author, Burton Richter, 1976 Nobel Laureate in Physics, attempts to communicate to society in a way that makes such an intimidating and contentious topic as climate change and the complexity of the associated energy issues that must be tackled seem easy to understand. This is a brilliant book written in a very informal way yet packed with easily understood information. Richter's judgment is superb in assessing the role that the various possible solutions may play in averting a global warming catastrophe. His long experience as an energy advisor to US governments shows clearly in this discussion. He manages to communicate calmly but objectively the urgency of tackling the issues under discussion. ... Richter has been extremely successful in presenting the big picture about the implications of climate change and how the rise in global mean temperature can be minimized. ... It should be on the reading list for 2011 of all concerned citizens. Physicists should read this book because it is a template for how they should proselytize about science to the general public. As Richter observes "I have learned one thing: politics - particularly international politics - is much harder than physics". This reviewer can only add that the effort to communicate to the political system is well worth the effort." - Harvey A. Buckmaster, Canadian Association of Physicists

"...the author adequately outlined the past, current and future effects on greenhouse gas emissions without requiring the reader to have any preconceived notions of the topic. I would recommend anyone with an interest in climate change to read this book with complete understanding toward those with a background in high school level general science." CMOS Bulletin

"As a compendium of vital energy information, clear facts on climate change and insights into how political decisions about energy are made in the U.S. and the world, Richter's book is an invaluable resource. EnviroLine" EnviroLine

Book Description

An insightful overview of climate change science and sustainable energy provision that assesses our options for averting potentially disastrous consequences of global warming. Written in non-technical language by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, this book allows readers to form their own conclusions on sustainable energy provision and climate change.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (April 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521747813
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521747813
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #204,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen M. Curry on July 8, 2010
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.
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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.
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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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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.
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