Stanford physicist Burton Richter’s moderate approach to climate change

Stanford’s Nobel laureate Burton Richter is a reliable source for effective policies that work. Dr. Richter was one of the principal contributors to the California’s Energy Future — The View to 2050.

Richter’s proposals bear no similarity to the typical “feel good”, money-wasting California subsidies and mandates. Prof. Richter was interviewed recently 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.

Secondly, no matter how good some solution is, some people will demand that we wait for a better solution. This is a problem that some environmentalists generate, because they’re not willing to settle for partial solutions. The example I use is switching from coal to natural gas to generate electricity, which would eliminate 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, and by the way, the electricity would be cheaper.

California has this “Million Solar Roofs” program, ($2.1 billion in state subsidies). For 15 to 20 percent of the cost, I could eliminate twice as much CO2 emissions by simply converting the Four Corners coal-fired power plant from coal to natural gas. That doesn’t say don’t use any solar. But it does say let’s do things that can have a big impact now, and let’s give credit for it. The mandate to utilities should be to reduce emissions. It shouldn’t be to use certain technologies.

Read the whole thing »

I just ordered the Kindle Edition of Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century.

Lastly, for a very easy to understand five-part video series on nuclear power, see the Richter interviews by Stanford prof. Margot Gerritsen for her Smart Energy podcast.

2 thoughts on “Stanford physicist Burton Richter’s moderate approach to climate change

  1. It’s true that burning coal emits more CO2 than does burning natural gas. However, the natural gas supply is not unlimited. The only reason the supply seems to have increased is that we are now using hydraulic fracking to increase the extraction rate. Unfortunately, hydraulic fracking seems to create significant environmental problems which may be very serious. Federal law prohibits the EPA from investigating the problems resulting from fracking, so we don’t really know how serious the problem is.

    Why is so little attention been paid to using thorium instead of uranium for nuclear power? According the the extensive reading I’ve done, nuclear power from thorium would solve just about all the problems associated with our uranium reactors and would produce inexpensive electricity.

    For more information on liquid fluoride thorium reactor technology (LFTR), do a google search on “thorium remix 2011.” A thorough knowledge of liquid fluoride thorium technology is essential to be able to comment intelligently on our energy problems.

  2. Frank – all of your comments are much appreciated. You might not know that because we’ve been on a constant travel schedule and have not done very well at comment followup.

    On fracking and shale gas – agree on both points. I do not want to see more expansion of hydraulic tracking, nor expansion of increasing investment in fossil electric generation. That said, I think Richter is taking the pragmatic path – until we can swing the political barge over to replacing fossil with nuclear, then gas is less evil than more coal. Even shale gas (where the evils of hydraulic fracking have mainly local impact). Richter is trying to show the Sierra Club crowd a way for them to win which can actually happen (instead of blowing more billions on solar).

    On thorium advantages – agree. The obvious smart policy is to spend what it takes (peanuts compared to ongoing wasteful subsidies) to build demonstration, then commercial scale plants of at least LFTR and IFR designs. We can’t really know what the real world life cycle costs are until we have the first plants connected to the grid.

    And costs determine which technologies will be bought by the utilities. We need to keep firmly in mind that it almost doesn’t matter what US and Germany do so long as China, India, Brazil make the smart choices quickly.

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