Minireviews: Smil on energy, and useless letters to the climate generation

Vaclav Smil – Energy (2006)

Most of the energy we use has its origin in sun rays, which are inefficiently captured by photosynthesis, and then slowly makes its way to us through the food web, (and, more slowly, through fossils fuels), and which are also the source of wind and hydro power. History is the story of how of how one of Earth’s life forms directed an increasing amount of this energy towards its own ends, at increasing levels of efficiency, and what follows will hopefully be the story of how we move on from the temporary fossil-based bootstrapping phase to something more permanent.

Recommended: Strongly. I love these sort of condensed topical overviews. They’re like extra long encyclopedia articles.

Snu, brev til klimagenerasjonen (2012)

See, this is why I decided to get involved in the climate debate in the first place, because if I didn’t, it would be left to people like this, second-rate artists and intellectuals pushing their talents to the limit by making the profound statement that gosh, climate change is so important, and we should do, like, something, I don’t know what, but I’ll do my part by spreading awareness. Oh, you don’t see how this image of an ampersand spreads awareness about climate change? Well, it does.

Recommended: Dear God no. (Oh, and to the one or two contributors I’m friend with on Facebook, I probably didn’t mean you. But you have to admit that overall this book is fucking useless.)

Bjørn Lomborg (ed.) – Smart Solutions to Climate Change

Bjørn Lomborg - Smart Solutions to Climate Change

Bjørn Lomborg (ed.) – Smart Solutions to Climate Change (2010)

If we pretend that it’s possible to calculate the costs of climate change, and the costs of potential climate solutions, then we can pretend to carry out a cost benefit analysis that will tell us what to do about it. Ta-da!

Recommended: No. There’s a place for cost benefit analysis. That place is after you’ve made an argument that it is the right tool for the job. I agree with Frank Ackerman that this is not the case with climate change. Dealing with climate change means staring out into the Big Unknown. You can’t pretend your way out of that. The chapter on technology-led climate policy is worth reading, though, because it puts more emphasis on actual relevant arguments than on a phony cost benefit analysis, arguing, in line with Pielke Jr, that instead of using a large CO2 tax to discourage fossil fuels, we need a small (and thereby politically feasible) CO2 tax that can be used to finance energy R&D. On the other hand, as one of the other contributors point out, this sort of program requires a high level of technological competence in government, and is vulnerable to pork barrel politics. Is it even possible for governments to make good investments in a field as open-ended and risky as alternative energies? It’s certainly nothing to be enthusiastic about – but then neither are any of the alternatives.

Roger Pielke Jr – The Climate Fix

Roger Pielke Jr – The Climate Fix (2010)

We don’t currently have the technology we need to decarbonize the world, ie to have continued economic growth for less CO2 emissions. But we do have the political will, and should stop pretending that it’s the climate skeptics that stand in the way of a solution. The real problem is the iron law of climate policy: That when people are asked to choose between preventing climate change and having economic growth, they choose growth. Ambitious CO2 targets, like the 80% by 2050 goal the UK has adopted, are irrelevant, because nobody have a practical solution to this problem. Instead of trying to price carbon out of the market, we should tax it just enough, perhaps $5 per ton CO2, to finance an investment in alternative energy technologies, so that an actual decarbonization can become easier in the future.

Recommended: Weakly. The ideas are interesting, but the book is unfocused. Pielke spends so much time on topics that by themselves could be interesting, but have little relevance to the theme, that by the time he gets around to explaining what his “climate fix” is, the book is almost over. A better title would have been “various thoughts I have that are more or less related to climate change”. Also, I disagree that we have the political will to prevent climate change. People say they want to do something, but political will is also the willingness to choose away something else. That willingness is small, hence the iron law of climate policy.

 

Frank Ackerman – Can We Afford the Future?

Frank Ackerman - Can We Afford the Future (2009)

Frank Ackerman – Can We Afford the Future? The Economics of a Warming World (2009)

Using estimates of the cost of climate change to argue for inaction is to undervalue the lives of future generations, and is fundamentally misguided: The biggest risks of climate change are priceless and unquantifiable. Markets won’t help us to solve them, we need complex international agreements and a WW2-scale mobilization.

Recommended: Weakly. I agree that cost estimates are misguided. Although you can set a price tag on a human life – you do this yourself implicitly every time you choose a cheaper, riskier car over a more expensive, safer one – I don’t see how this can be made to work when it comes to climate change. Partly because of the fundamental uncertainty we’re dealing with, and partly because there’s no choice involved. If you disagree with the price, which planet would you go to? But the market ideology Ackerman objects to is a straw man, which leads him to overstate his case in some odd ways. He thinks the economy is full of free climate lunches, just waiting to be eaten, and he believes that spending $1 billion to avoid climate change is inherently better than spending it to clean up afterwards, because investments in green technologies “create jobs”. Sure, but what about the people we take the $1 billion from to pay for this? He’s forgotten the forgotten man. Mostly, this book serves as proof to why climate policy can’t be left to the left.

Minireviews: The cryosphere and atmosphere

Shawn J. Marshall – The Cryosphere (2011)

Ice and snow comes and it goes and it changes form in all sorts of strange ways. Density and thermal conductivity and heat capacity varies depending on circumstances, and heat flows about in all directions. A glacier or ice sheet may look like just a big static pile of ice, but is actually a knot of non-linear processes that are very difficult to model, giving current models for future melting a conservative bias.

Recommended: Yes. This is the most technical book in the series so far. Half of it goes over my head. The other half makes frozen water seem like the most fascinating material on earth. If I had to choose a career in science, I think this would be it.

David Randall – Atmosphere, Clouds and Climate (2012)

The atmosphere behaves a little like water on a frying pan. Heated from the earth below, (which again is heated by the sun), it responds with patterns of turbulence that have the overall effect of transporting energy up from the ground to the upper atmosphere, and from the equator towards the poles, partly by storing it as latent heat in water vapor. Add the Coriolis effect and the different heat properties of land and sea, and you have those global disturbances that from one perspective we call climate, and from another weather.

Recommended: Yes.

Chris Mooney – Storm World – Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle over Global Warming

Chris MooneyStorm World – Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle over Global Warming (2007)

The debate among scientists over the link between global warming and hurricane strength reflects an old and sometimes bitter divide between empirical meteorologists, who look at hurricanes as they actually occur, and try to find patterns in the data, and theoretical meteorologists, who try to form models that can explain how hurricanes operate. The idea that global warming will increase hurricane strength, and maybe already has, has more support among theoretical meteorologists, and is met with more skepticism from the empiricists. But apart from the aging hurricane giant and climate skeptic William Gray, who’s been flying into hurricanes since the 1950s, meteorologists don’t debate global warming as such, but its effects. And during the 2005-2006 hurricane seasons, this difference of opinion was politicized and blown out of all proportions by journalists, activists and politicians, dragging hurricane scientists into a media game they were not prepared for.

Recommended: Strongly. I usually hate anecdote-driven science books, but this is a perfect example of how they can also be used to illuminate, by placing a confusing debate in a historical context. I agree entirely with the way Mooney balances the opposing viewpoints, and with his warning to those who want to mix politics and cutting edge science by hyping up the latest papers that confirm their view. Non-scientists should aim to make rational decisions based on uncertainty, and leave the scientific community in peace to reach conclusions at its own, infuriatingly slow pace.

James Hansen – Storms of My Grandchildren

James Hansen – Storms of My Grandchildren (2009)

One quarter sound but poorly explained climate science, one quarter anecdotes about Hansen’s visits to the White House, one quarter Hansen’s personal theories about how we’ll drown and/or fry ourselves to extinction, and one quarter reasonable discussions on energy policies.

Recommended: No. Hansen never really backs up his claim that we must limit CO2 levels to 350 ppm if we want to avoid a 75 meter sea level rise, or that burning all our oil, gas and coal is certain to cause Venus-like temperatures. He just repeats that he “has come to believe” that it is so. Hansen is in many ways a mirror image of the climate skeptics. He relies on generally accepted theories when he can, but cherry-picks when he must. He even resort to the same conspiracy theories as the skeptics do about why other scientists don’t take his theories seriously. It’s because he’s opposed by a powerful and tightly knit network of IPCC-related scientists! This isn’t science. It’s the ramblings of a crank. His views on solutions are more down to earth. He argues that cap-and-trade doesn’t work because it sets a floor on CO2 reductions, and that governments should not aim to “pick winners” among energy alternatives. The best solution is a large carbon tax where funds are distributed directly back to the citizens. Oh, and he’s pro-nuclear. (Oddly, the one thing nearly all the books I’ve read on climate change and energy alternatives so far have in common is that they’re cautiously pro-nuclear and pro-carbon tax.)