Energy and climate books I read in 2010

Here is a selection of sustainable energy and climate change books I read in 2010. I’ve provided a few 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 (or click links provided). For my 2009 list, go here.

Climate science

Tyler Volk. CO2 Rising: The World’s Greatest Environmental Challenge. MIT Press, 2008 (223 pp). Carbon atoms with personality – an entertaining tour of the carbon cycle, and an exploration of how humanity is disrupting the natural balance of flows in and out of the biosphere and geosphere. Full review here. Rating: 3

Edmond Mathez. Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future. Columbia University Press, 2009 (318 pp). A richly illustrated guide to all aspects of climate science, impacts, adaptation and mitigation. Superficial in parts, but mostly a superb overview, and excellent value as a student text. Full review here. Rating: 4

Peter Ward. The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps. Basic Books, 2010 (272 pp). A chilling look at our possible destiny along the world’s coastlines as climate change drives an inexorable rise in sea levels. Hypothetical glimpses into possible futures are used as an effective device to indicate the limits of human adaptability. Full review here. Rating: 3.5

Stewart Cohen & Melissa Waddell. Climate Change in the 21st Century. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2010 (379 pp). Mostly a standard, plain text overview of climate change, but saved by the excellent concluding chapters on integrated assessment models and the interrelationship and synergies of anthropogenic climate change within the broader global environmental debate. Rating: 2.5

Michael Mann & Lee Kump. Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming. DK, 2008 (208 pp). A layman’s guide to the IPCC reports. The text is fairly straightforward and won’t reveal much that is new to those already familiar with the evidence, but probably useful for the beginner. Worth getting,  however, for the superb quality of the numerous colour figures. Rating: 3

Sustainable energy

Colin Keay. Nuclear Energy Explained (4 short mini-books). Scribd Online Books, 2002 — 2005 (190 pp). A layman’s tour of nuclear energy: fact, fiction and realities. A terrific introduction to the subject for anyone with little prior knowledge but a hunger to know more. Full review here. Rating: 4

Barry Brook & Ian Lowe. Why vs Why: Nuclear Power. Pantera Press, 2010 (128 pp). A flip book, providing the arguments for and against nuclear power as a solution to the climate and energy crises. Full description here. Rating: N/A (I wrote it, so I’ll leave others to judge!)

Fred Krupp & Miriam Horn. Earth: The Sequel – The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming. W.W. Norton & Co., 2008 (279 pp).  Renewable energy ‘stories’, where the technology for solar thermal, bioenergy, wave, coal with CCS and so on are overviewed and then tied in with vignettes about the people developing the technology. Lightweight but well written. Rating: 2.5

William Tucker. Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey. Bartleby Press, 2008 (430 pp). (Chapters 2 and 8 are free online) — A very readable history of American energy: fossil, renewable and nuclear. The last part of the book focuses on Gen II and Gen III nuclear power, and explores where it has stalled and how it might flourish in the future. Written by a conservative with a strong environmental conciousness. The quality of the prose is top class. Rating: 4

Jeff Eerkens. The Nuclear Imperative – A Critical Look at the Approaching Energy Crisis. Springer, 2006 (160 pp). Aimed at the working scientist or engineer who wants to learn more about nuclear power and the serious need to find replacements to fossil fuels. Some excellent technical material, especially on synfuel production, the operation and physical basis of nuclear power plants, and risk assessment in the context of energy. Anyone serious about energy needs to read this. Rating: 4.5

Alvin Weinberg. The First Nuclear Era – The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer. Springer, 1997 (324 pp). Reflective autobiography of Alvin Weinberg, former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, co-inventor of the light water reactor, and advocate of molten salt thorium reactors. Offers a superb insight into the first 50 years of atomic energy, from one of the key figures who saw it all. I loved his description of the excitement (and disappointments) of the birth and maturity of this bold new energy source. An absolute MUST READ. Quote below. Rating: 5

I can still remember the thrill that came with my realization that the (nuclear fission) breeder meant inexhaustible energy… I became obsessed with the idea that humankind’s whole future depended on the breeder. Alvin Weinberg, The First Nuclear Era


Of course I also ploughed through a slew of scientific papers (both peer-reviewed and grey literature) as any active research scientist must do to keep up with his field. (Forgive me if I don’t list all of these.) I also read/edited a couple of complete draft books, including a new one on energy alternatives by Martin Nicholson and a tome that will become THE reference book on fast reactor technology (yes, I wish I could say more…).

I also read the complete series of Sherlock Holmes books (useful for sharpening one’s critical thinking skills) and a heap of other fiction that is not relevant to this blog!



  1. I’d recommend Gwyneth Cravens Power to Save the World for that audience. I haven’t read Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline yet. That might be a good one too, but since it also discusses genetic engineering you might not want to give them too many fences to jump at once.


  2. I’m going to continue recommending Wade Allison’s Radiation and Reason. It’s a review of the (lack of) evidence for harm at low radiation doses and dose rates from a man very much in the know. His conclusions are that LNT is bunk, that radiation accumulates over finite short periods not lifetimes, and with far less harm, than currently legislated practically everywhere. The impact of accepting his assessment of radiation harm is a tremendous reduction in the expense of nuclear power throughout its lifecycle. Rating 4 (maybe 4.5, by comparison with Tucker).


  3. Yes, I reviewed Craven’s book last year. It is great, but long – some might not have the patience to stick with it.

    For the technical minded who wants to learn about nuclear energy, the first book I’d recommend is Cohen “The Nuclear Energy Option“.

    For the general environmentalist, it’s hard to go past Blees “Prescription for the Planet“. He covers all the key bases, and is a terrific writer (disclosure: and a great friend!)


  4. Barry – how on earth do you find time to eat, sleep and have a family life? On top of research, getting through enormous piles of books, writing papers, teaching and maintaining a blog. To say I find this impressive is an understatement.

    Also, could you provide more information on the Eerkens book? I’m no engineer, but I have a fascination with energy now, and wonder how technical this book gets.

    I also agree, The Nuclear Energy Option is great for the non-expert with a brain.


  5. I disagree with your statements regarding Eerkens book “The Nuclear Imperative.” In my reading of the book for a review for Nuclear Street I found so many errors that I declined the review.

    Good nuclear reads: “Atomic Awakening” by Mahaffey, “Nuclear Energy Now” by Herbst & Hopley


  6. Thanks Randy, I reviewed Mahaffey for last year’s 2009 list – a great book, I agree, beautifully written. On the other hand I didn’t like “Nuclear Energy Now” very much – very dry and generally uninspiring.

    Could you give me a sampling of some of the errors you found in Eerkens’ book? His estimate of uranium supply and 1000 years for FBRs is clearly a naive estimate, and there are other similar issues that were glossed over, but I found few actual errors myself. I’d be interested in what you’d picked up.


  7. It’s also worth mentioning – although they’ve probably been discussed here before – Power to Save the World by Cravens, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air by Mackay, and The Nuclear Energy Option by Bernard Cohen.


  8. Hi all:

    try The Atomic Obsession, by John Muller. very good for a number of reasons but really good on the proliferation fear around nuclear power. he sees the atomic obsession as stalling np, which he views as imperative.

    on eerkens: if you have the right access to a university, you can download all of the book. many libraries with have the springer verlag books e booked.

    I have downloaded a couple of his chapters in this way and downloaded charles sanders’ book on radiation hormesis in its entirety.



  9. Thanks Barry and Gregory.

    I probably should add this to the conversation too; I thought that the “Why vs Why” book was probably a good introduction to the nuclear topic, providing a “balanced” argument for and against the technology. But then a friend of mine read it and told me she didn’t know what to believe, because there were different numbers and stats quoted for more or less the same things in the two sections of the book.

    I don’t know what she was referring to specifically, but I think this is due to the nature of the book (it’s more for popular reading than a scientific text-book, without the room for extensive back up back-up material), combined with the fact that anti-nuclear arguments aren’t very honest, so the numbers they quote are often false or used misleadingly.


  10. Tom K, what you say is quite true. I can only hope that it sparks people’s interest to learn more, and that then takes them on to BNC! There are certainly plenty of links back to the website, subtle and otherwise, in the book. Learning about energy is a long journey – the Why vs Why book just gets people out of their front door and onto the road, which thereafter goes ever, ever on…


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  12. How do we grow the global supply of energy, make it more accessible to the poor, and at the same time cut carbon emissions to near zero? And how can physics contribute? During the past quarter century, physics has had its strongest industrial impact at the intersection of solid-state physics and information technology. Following Moore’s law, computation has made fast progress. Many IT firms spend more than 10% of their gross income on R&D and can move innovations from the laboratory to the marketplace in just a few years. And even though planar transistors are approaching quantum limits, those limits are still quite a way out, and we are just beginning to exploit the third dimension. As Richard Feynman noted, “there’s plenty of room at the bottom.”

    The energy industry is a different story. It moves much more slowly, spends about 1–2% on R&D, and moves more than 8 gigatons of carbon per year in fuels that cost less than $1 per kilogram. Also, unlike computation, many energy-conversion technologies, from gas turbines to solar cells, are within a factor of two of their thermodynamic limits. Physics can and must help resolve our energy challenges, but in order to contribute, physicists must understand the technical and economic constraints that make energy so fundamentally different from computation.

    – from Reshaping the energy landscape, David Keith’s review in Physics Today of the following books:

    Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century
    Burton Richter
    Cambridge U. Press, New York, 2010. $29.99 paper (248 pp.).
    ISBN 978-0-521-74781-3

    Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air
    David J. C. MacKay
    UIT Cambridge, Cambridge, UK, 2009. $49.95 paper (384 pp.).
    ISBN 978-0-954-45293-3

    Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change
    Bryan Lovell
    Cambridge U. Press, New York, 2009. $29.99 paper (230 pp.).
    ISBN 978-0-521-14559-6

    Sorry I’m not sure if the review is paywalled; I might post some more excerpts if it turns out it is and people are interested.


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