Energy Policy: Burton Richter

I would like to recommend my current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy.This is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them, and has a real talent for making the complex understandable. E.g., for a sample of Richter’s no-nonsense style, he was interviewed by Mark Golden for Power Engineering. Excerpt:

If you got one wish on international policy on climate change, what would it be?

That we would abandon the stupid notion of legally binding agreements on emissions. What are the fines for not meeting your agreements? Who levies the fine? Where does the money go? There are no sanctions, so what does “legally binding” mean?

Also, 15 countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of the world’s emissions. Why are we trying to get a deal with 196 countries, most of which are spending all their time trying to figure out how to get the richer countries to pay them money? What we really need is to get these 15 countries, which includes some developed countries and some rapidly developing countries, to agree on a deal.

(…)

Your book takes a middle ground between the deniers of climate change and what you call “ultra-greens,” who insist on drastic action immediately but reject nuclear power and some other low-carbon solutions. Can you talk about that middle ground?

What I tried to say is: Here is what we know, and here is how we know it. Here’s what the uncertainties are. Here’s what I think we ought to be doing. But the reader should think about what we ought to be doing, too.

The future is hard to predict, because it hasn’t happened yet. For some, this is an excuse for inaction. “We don’t know enough. Since we don’t know enough, we shouldn’t do anything.” Whereas there are a lot of things we can do now that don’t cost much at all and that can have a relatively large impact.

(…)

Richter continues the pragmatic policy theme by showing why Calfornia should cancel its USD 2. billion subsidy “Million Solar Roofs” program. Instead for less than 20% of that cost, twice the CO2 emissions could be eliminated by covering the Four Corners power station to natural gas. I don’t like the lock-in effects of new investment in gas plants – but I think he is correct. In the light of what is politically feasible today, this is good policy.