Book Reviews

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The New Climate War – The Fight to Take Back Our Planet

Author: Michael E. Mann
Published: January 2021
Review by: Robert Cordingley

Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science and much applauded climate crisis fighter, published his book The New Climate War, just as we were transitioning to a new White House administration. While the impact on US policies on climate took a big hit in the previous four years, we can now be hopeful that the country can pursue sensible policies based on the best available science. At the core of Mann’s message is also hope, hope that the ‘inactivists’, those who oppose any action on climate change, will fail to stop us falling over a tipping point in public opinion and consciousness and make the feasible and necessary systemic changes in policy to solve the basic problem.

For example, he argues that proponents of individual action (“it’s our fault and not the fossil fuel industry’s”) can be a distraction from the systemic changes we need.

On doomism, he notably contextualizes the physical tipping points to a runaway climate warming via methane hydrates and permafrost methane release are real but operate over centuries or even millennia.

He argues that the environmentalists debate over carbon pricing is largely artificial being the result of deliberate and divisive messaging by others.

Mann delivers a blow by blow account of the disingenuous ways, for example, Koch and the fossil fuel industry have fought against renewable energy and anything that might threaten their profits. He speaks from the front lines, suffering personal attacks and brickbats on his own scientific work. He highlights politicians working in their legislatures to discredit renewable energy. He dissects the campaigns of dis- and mis-information designed to cause rifts in the environmental movement.

I found the book a lively and easy read with his clear writing and a measure of wit. The book is a must read for climate crisis activists to understand the deliberate strategies inactivists have followed in, as he puts it, the Ds: disinformation, deceit, divisiveness, deflection, delay, despair-mongering and doomism. He names names with abandon, in the media, in industry and among those who think the problem is too big for us to make a difference and those that might hijack the climate fight for other causes. The final chapter provides a down-to-earth blueprint on how we can fight back on the inactivists' propaganda. It has been all about the ‘D’ messaging and we need to call it out for what it is.

Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life

Author: Edward O. Wilson
Published: March 2016
Review by: Holland Shepherd


Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (2016) is Pulitzer Prize-winning author, biologist, and environmental advocate Edward O. Wilson’s in-depth look at the planetary threat of mass extinction, known as the Sixth Extinction, taking place at humanity’s own hands.

The current rate of extinction is nearly 1,000 times higher than during the pre-human era, and traditional conservation movements will not work fast enough to save the natural world. However, Wilson argues that there is still time to save up to 85% of Earth’s biodiversity. His solution: Devote half of the planet’s surface to nature preserves. The book is divided into three parts: a discussion of the source of the problem; an analysis of the interconnectedness, complexity, and richness of living organisms and their ecosystems; and Wilson’s solution for saving the remaining wildlands and stabilizing all of life’s future.

In Part 1

Wilson discusses the source of the problem at hand: Human-driven activities are causing species populations to decline and increasing the rate of extinctions. There have only been five other geologically recorded mass extinction events during Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. After the most recent such event, the planet took around 10 million years to recover.

In a flash of geological time, humans are transforming the habitats, climate, and the very ground that we walk on, resulting in geologists, as well as Wilson, arguing for the age we live in to be called the “Anthropocene.”

Wilson’s contention is that humanity’s short-sightedness and inflated sense of self is the driving force behind these extinctions.

Some individuals—new conservationists and anthropocentrists among them—believe that humanity’s rule over nature is preordained and that we should accept our supreme status over all other living organisms. This small but growing group of individuals believes that humans should dominate the planet and the surviving species and ecosystems are conserved based on their usefulness to humanity.

To Wilson, this idea is wrong and shameful. He reminds readers that we, like other organisms, are biological creatures. Humans are part of the biosphere and not above it. Through Part 1, Wilson hopes to show the urgency and magnitude of the problem at hand.

In Part 2

Provides a naturalistic portrait of the surviving biosphere. Wilson pays tribute to organisms both large and small. This is a conscious decision because, according to him, most of the public and scientists do not understand the full breadth of biodiversity. In fact, scientists have only documented about 20% of the natural world to the species level.

Wilson illustrates the interconnectedness of living species within their ecosystems and how extinguishing one species has ramifications throughout the web of life. Because the natural world is poorly understood, we do not have a full grasp of the true impact of extinctions. The aim of these chapters is to help readers see the value of nature and to realize that losing this beauty is unacceptable.

In Part 3

Wilson offers his solution. Traditional conservation movements, which focus on saving the most endangered species and habitats, are not moving fast enough. To combat the magnitude of the problem at hand, there needs to be a solution just as enormous.

Wilson argues that this solution is to designate one half of the planet’s surface as a natural reserve.

The digital and economic revolutions, more information in one place and available on computers, sustainable economies, occurring now have already begun to reduce our ecological footprint.

If humans can stabilize (and eventually decrease) our population and shift from viewing ourselves as rulers of nature to seeing ourselves as its stewards, then Wilson thinks we will be able to save most of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. The book talks about Earth’s rich and unique biodiversity and a lamentation for the life that human activities are extinguishing. To Wilson, humanity stands at a crossroads: We can continue down our destructive path, which will have catastrophic and far-reaching consequences for the planet, or we can work together to save the remaining biodiversity. The choice, according to Wilson, is obvious. He is also optimistic that humans will chose to conserve life, creating a sustainable future for all.

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air

Author: David MacKay
Published: December 2009
Review by: Jim Eagle

In view of our increasing, and increasingly disastrous, appetite for fossil fuels, David MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, is even more important now than it was when it first appeared in 2009. It applies straightforward arithmetic and high school physics to examine humanity’s ability to generate carbon-free energy. Professor MacKay’s analyses are stated in an informal, conversational style, and are leavened with his British wit. Also, the book is unusual in that it can be downloaded for free as well as purchased on-line.

The main question the book addresses is, “Can a specified country or group of countries generate sufficient sustainable energy to meet the current (circa 2010) and future demands?” Although MacKay examines primarily the United Kingdom, his approach is readily adapted to other countries or groups of countries. He develops specific sustainable energy plans for the UK, Europe, North America, and the World.

MacKay considers sustainable sources of electrical energy such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, ocean wave, tidal, and geothermal. He looks at batteries, several other energy storage solutions, and the effects of weather fluctuations on wind and solar.

Britain’s energy problem, as he summarizes it, is to generate sufficient, sustainable energy even during cold, cloudy winters. He writes that Britain has several options, but eventually concludes that, “there is something unpalatable about every one of them.” His various plans include importing large amounts of solar-generated electricity from regions of the planet with excess solar resources and small population densities (e.g., Sahara Desert), building “country-sized” wind turbine farms, relying on nuclear power to a greater extent than has been politically feasible, or for individual Britons to voluntarily reduce energy consumption. MacKay is a big fan of the last option, but notes that “lifestyle changes” are a hard sell in developed countries like the UK. In addition, he supports Britain’s use of carbon capture and storage solutions as long as that does not slow the transition from coal.

Even though nuclear power is an extractive industry, MacKay is cautiously optimistic about its potential by the end of this century. He conditions this optimism on future technological breakthroughs such as breeder, thorium, or fusion reactors, plus large-scale uranium extraction from seawater. MacKay, regrettably in my view, avoids consideration of low-probability but high-consequence accident risks associated with uranium mining, fuel enrichment, nuclear power station operation, and spent fuel transportation and storage. He concludes that assuming the right technological breakthroughs, and the reduction to essentially zero of human error and mechanical failure in the uranium fuel cycle, nuclear power can be part of the transition to a carbon-free energy economy.

MacKay’s analytical approach can be strikingly simple. For example, to determine the potential energy contribution of biofuels, he uses just three numbers: amount of land under cultivation, average sunlight intensity, and the efficiency in which plants turn sunlight into stored energy. For Britain, he concludes that if an unrealistically high 75% of the country were cultivated with bioenergy crops, then 28% of Britain’s energy demand could be met. Clearly bioenergy, while an important energy source, is not going to solve Britain’s energy problem by itself.

Another biofuel “what if” excursion is discussed in a 2012 TEDx talk, where MacKay imagines cars on a one-lane highway in Britain being powered entirely by biofuels grown in one, continuous field along the edge of the highway. The cars have an 80 meter separation, a speed of 60 mph, and a fuel efficiency of 30 miles per gallon. Then to produce sufficient biofuel to keep the cars running, the biofuel field would run the length of the highway and have a width of 8 km.

At another point in his chapter called “Cars,” he notes that butter and gasoline have approximately the same energy density. So if we have forgotten the energy density of gasoline, we can refer to the nutritional label on a stick of butter or margarine. His quantitative approach and examples are what one would expect from a very smart, and perhaps slightly eccentric, physics professor.

To forecast efficiency gains for future energy production, MacKay takes 2009 values and, when he can, examines what limits physics imposes. For example, he notes that single-junction photovoltaics in 2009 operated at about 20% efficiency and the physical limit appears to be about 30%. He also notes that future production costs for solar panels will likely decrease.

On the nit picking side of the ledger, MacKay mentions entropy, which is a more complicated concept than energy, but does not discuss it in detail. So heat pumps, refrigeration, and electrical power stations are not dealt with as completely as are cars, airplanes, electrical heating, and electrical storage. And in cost discussions, MacKay generally ignores the cost of building energy system infrastructure. In his defense, he states that construction costs for new energy infrastructure have been about 5% of the lifetime value of energy produced by these facilities. These are not major complaints.

This book is a substantial contribution to the sustainable energy literature. It demonstrates how quantitative analysis can inform and raise the level of the climate debate. In addition to the energy modeling examples, it contains a wealth of data needed to populate the models. Given its price, it should be in our electronic libraries, if not on our physical bookshelves.

Dr. David MacKay was a physics professor at the University of Cambridge. His Ph.D. was in Computation and Neural Systems from California Institute of Technology. He served as chairman of the Cambridge Physics Department and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2009. Beginning in 2005, he devoted much of his time to public teaching about energy and climate change. He was dedicated to providing conceptually simple, quantitative tools to evaluate candidate sustainable energy plans for individual countries and for the World as a whole. David MacKay died in 2016, at age 48, of inoperable cancer. He dedicated his book “to those who will not have the benefit of two billion years’ accumulated energy reserve