Energy and climate books I read in 2009

Here is an incomplete list of the sustainable energy and climate change books I read in 2009 (actually, a few also scraped in from late 2008). I’ve provided a 2 — 3 sentence summary of each book (from my perspective) and a Rating out of 5. Some books have been reviewed in more detail on BNC already — enter from the title of the book in this website’s search box to find the review.

Climate science

James Lovelock. The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. Basic Books, 2009, 288 p. — Lovelock is a wise old man who’s seen it all, and he pulls no punches here. His ruthless pragmatism on nuclear energy and climate adaptation was what I most enjoyed about this book. Chapter 4, “Energy and Food Sources” is a wonderful summary of the energy problem and the rest of the book explores the many uncertainties in climate science, and why they’re generally pretty bad news. We’re not in for a smooth ride this century. Rating: 4

James Hansen. Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity. Bloomsbury, 2009, 320 p. — For a scientist, Hansen has an exceptional knack at writing for a general audience. In exploring the climate’s sensitivity to human forces, he draws on three principle lines of evidence — Earth history, modern observational data, and models/physics (the latter as integrators and predictors, the first line of evidence he considers to be the most compelling). In Hansen’s exploration of solutions, he (rightly) derides cap-and-trade shell games and points towards a technological solution with a clear timetable for closing out coal by 2030. Rating: 4.5

David Archer. The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate. Princeton UP, 2009, 180 p. — Excellent summary of the study of palaeoclimates and why this field of science points to long residence times of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with the implication that we are truly committing to change that will last ‘forever’ (hundreds of millennia). The right way to write popular science. Rating: 4

A. Barrie Pittock. Climate Change: The Science, Impacts and Solutions. CSIRO Publishing, 2009, 350 p. — Thorough, up-to-date review of climate science from a well-know Australian scientist. It examines whether things are worse now than we anticipated 5 to 10 years ago (answer = yes), and considers adaptation and mitigation solutions, with a focus on Australia. Barrie doesn’t think much about nuclear power; his dream is solar. Hmmm. Rating: 3.5

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Open Thread 2

It’s the Christmas and New Year season, and that means general festivities, good food and drinks, and lots of time in the pool with the kids (remember, it’s the height of summer in Australia). I also make it a rule at this time of year to try to stay away from anything serious on the computer, at least for a week or so. (For those who care about my other life, I’ve been catching up on season 4 Doctor Who and old Poirot episodes, as well as leveling up to 70 in CoD:MW2 multiplayer).

But, as a hat tip to my mentally evolutionary year (in terms of my thinking on climate solutions), I’ve got one last post lined up to close out the Noughties. It’s a brief review of the sustainable energy and climate change books that I read in 2009 (…stacking them up on my table, there is a disturbingly large number). Expect that post to be up on 31 December.

Meanwhile, I’ll be in-and-out of BNC, keeping up with the comments. I really love the active community that’s built up here — it’s got a real life of its own. In that spirit, I thought it was probably time to post up another Open Thread.

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Unnatural gas

Guest Post by Tom Blees. Tom is author of Prescription for the Planet – The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Tom is also the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives.


Last month Bobby Kennedy Jr., a tireless advocate for the environment, gave a talk in New York City to a packed house. He spoke about the devastation wrought by coal mining and argued that we must get away from fossil fuels if we’re to deal with climate change. He also, to my chagrin (since I know he’s got my book), threw in some tired clichés about how bad nuclear power is. He then waxed enthusiastic about wind and solar power, asserting that if we build a smart grid and pour enough resources into building a lot of wind and solar production, we can have “free energy forever.” The crowd ate it up. Bobby’s a very good speaker, he’s definitely got the Kennedy knack for that.

Later, as he expanded on the renewable energy topic, he pointed out that we have abundant natural gas in the USA that we can use to fill in when the wind and solar production is insufficient. Bobby is certainly not alone in having a huge blind spot in this regard. Virtually every prominent advocate for a renewables-only future includes natural gas as a big part of the mix. Though it’s usually de-emphasized by wind and solar promoters, this embrace of natural gas generation is a tacit admission of the logistical and economic impossibility of providing all the energy humanity needs from renewables alone.

The willing acceptance of increased natural gas use by so many who consider themselves environmentalists is stunningly inconsistent with the science of anthropogenic climate change. The nearly religious fervor of the windies and sunnies virtually ignores this devil in the details. The most classic example of such willful blindness is the elevation of T. Boone Pickens to the status of environmental hero because of his plans (since scrapped, ironically) to build a huge wind farm in Texas. Back in 2004, T. Boone was infamous among these same people as the nefarious money man behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the abominable smear campaign that helped keep George W. Bush in power for a second disastrous term. T. Boone’s transformation into a darling of environmentalists is reminiscent of the “rehabilitation” of political pariahs in Maoist China. How quickly we forget.

A cynic (or realist) might well observe that T. Boone Pickens is a gas guy. That’s his stock in trade, it’s what made him the billions that freed him to support arch-conservative interests until his recent foray into the world of lefties. His political chameleon act, though, is much easier to understand if one keeps in mind the fact that the more massive the deployment of wind turbines and solar farms the more dependent we will become upon natural gas. It’s telling that T. Boone eventually abandoned plans for his mega-wind farm, attesting to his recognition that the economics simply couldn’t justify it. Ironically, he’s still pals with the big shots on the left. Ah, sweet redemption!

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Temperature of science – never give up

As the end of 2009 approaches, I have many BraveNewClimate blog posts that are developing behind the scenes — more from the IFR FaD and TCASE series, a guest post by Tom Blees on the natural gas ‘game’, a guest post by a new BNC writer on wind farm planning problems, a report about my upcoming popular book on nuclear power (co-authored by Ian Lowe), and so on.

One of the most interesting things on the immediate horizon is a simple analysis to compare six options for reducing CO2 emissions from Australia’s electricity generation over the period 2010 and 2050, by Peter Lang. Peter has written a number of important posts on likely wind and solar energy costs and carbon abatement potential, as these technologies are taken to a large scale (search for ‘Peter Lang” on this page for a listing).

For now though, I want to take a bit of space to reflect on the global temperature record. With 2009 ranking among the hottest years on record [final data pending] and 2010 looking likely to be the hottest ever, it’s worth understanding where these data come from and why climate scientists consider them to be so robust. (Incidentally, on my research front, Corey Bradshaw and I are currently working on a new systematic analysis of the Australian temperature station data, to better contextualise extreme heat wave events).

So, below, I reproduce “The Temperature of Science” by Jim Hansen (arguably the world’s most famous climate scientist and a fellow SCGI member). Jim has perhaps the best understanding of this topic of anyone I know. This is a post everyone who wishes to make a comment in this area ought to read. I’ll be interested in the opinions of regular BNC readers.


The Temperature of Science

James Hansen


My experience with global temperature data over 30 years provides insight about how the science and its public perception have changed. In the late 1970s I became curious about well known analyses of global temperature change published by climatologist J. Murray Mitchell: why were his estimates for large-scale temperature change restricted to northern latitudes? As a planetary scientist, it seemed to me there were enough data points in the Southern Hemisphere to allow useful estimates both for that hemisphere and for the global average. So I requested a tape of meteorological station data from Roy Jenne of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who obtained the data from records of the World Meteorological Organization, and I made my own analysis.

Fast forward to December 2009, when I gave a talk at the Progressive Forum in Houston Texas. The organizers there felt it necessary that I have a police escort between my hotel and the forum where I spoke. Days earlier bloggers reported that I was probably the hacker who broke into East Anglia computers and stole e-mails. Their rationale: I was not implicated in any of the pirated e-mails, so I must have eliminated incriminating messages before releasing the hacked emails. The next day another popular blog concluded that I deserved capital punishment. Web chatter on this topic, including indignation that I was coming to Texas, led to a police escort.

How did we devolve to this state? Any useful lessons? Is there still interesting science in analyses of surface temperature change? Why spend time on it, if other groups are also doing it?

First I describe the current monthly updates of global surface temperature at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Then I show graphs illustrating scientific inferences and issues. Finally I respond to questions in the above paragraph.

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A LFTR deployment plan for Australia

Below is a guest post by Alex Goodwin, which canvasses the idea of a large-scale deployment of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR) to clean up Australia’s power generation sector. On the Energy from Thorium forums, he’s known as fnord.

Alex refers to himself as “the finance grad they keep in a deep dark hole”, reflecting the master of business in applied finance he earned at QUT in 2007. Thus, although he’s often been mistaken for a nuclear engineer or other nuclear industry professional, in reality he’s merely an interested amateur and communicator [we need more people like this]. He joined Toastmasters (a public speaking club) in October 2008, completed a Competent Communicator course in November 2009, and most of his speeches promote the LFTR concept in one way or another.

In this post, Alex is being pragmatic. For instance, one may argue over whether his subplan to upgrade lignite using LFTR process heat and so add value to our exports is a good idea, from a climate change perspective, but ultimately we’ve got to have some transition plan, and at least the one he proposes is probably more realistic than the Government’s dreams of a world powered by coal with carbon capture and storage. In the end though, we, and other coal-rich nations, will just have to face the fact that most of the coal must be left in the ground.

You can download an 8-page printable PDF of Alex’s article here.


Clean electricity, cheap electricity, safe electricity – pick any three

By Alex Goodwin

The federal government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme signals its desire for Australian carbon emissions (currently 28.3 tonnes per capita, yearly) to drop to 60% of 2000 levels by 2050, after allowing for population growth.

If it’s business as usual, I can see some difficulty meeting that goal.

However, we don’t have time for business as usual – climate change slowly parboils us all.  For those of you skeptical of global warming, there are still plenty of reasons to go full throttle nuclear – economic development, saving Australian lives from reduced air pollution, and energy/water security, to name three.  Energy and water security vastly reduces the need for Australia to undertake foreign policy adventures to secure oil and clean water supplies, saving yet more lives.

It makes sense to go after the biggest source of carbon emissions first – which, in Australia’s case, is the power generation industry.  Power generation emits nearly 14 tonnes per head, and it’s fairly concentrated, unlike agriculture (4.2 tonnes) and transport (3.8 tonnes).

Clean power generation up, and we can meet, and beat, the CPRS goal.  We can’t cut our own economic throats cleaning up our act, so we need reliable, emission-free power to avoid disrupting the Australian economy.

This can be done, for roughly the cost of Mr Rudd’s stimulus package, inside ten years, benefiting Australian national security, the power generation industry, the coal industry, and the Australian consumer.

Enter the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).  As the name suggests, it is:

A liquid-fuelled nuclear reactor;

Running on thorium;

Toothpaste and table-salt safe;

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