Reviewed 2/01/2010

Kicking the Carbon Habit, by William Sweet

Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy
William Sweet
New York: Columbia University Press, 2006




ISBN-13 978-0-231-13710-2
ISBN-10 0-231-13710-9 256p. HC/BWI $?

William Sweet is senior editor of Spectrum, the general news and features magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). As such, he describes global warming and its energy implications in a competent, well organized, and comprehensive way. He divides the subject into three parts. First, he gives us the historical background and current status of our environment, explaining how coal came to be and how burning it affects our world. (Other carbon-based fuels have similar effects, but coal is the chief culprit.) Next, he lays out the scientific argument that our use of coal and other fossil fuels is the principle reason for today's global warming trend. Finally, he examines the various options for cutting back on carbon-dioxide emissions, and their prospects for realization.

The whole book is good, but personally I enjoyed Part II the most. In preparing it, he evidently interviewed many climate experts, and his account of the scientific developments is excellent as a result. You won't find a better discussion of Dansgaard-Oeschger and Heinrich-Bond Events (pages 77-87), and he connects those and other newly elucidated climate phenomena with documented history.

"Even in the nearsighted perspective of historical time, the cores showed some nice consistencies with well-documented events: GISP 2, for example, gave a snapshot of fluctuations in which important events could be discerned, like a European period of torrential rains and famine from 1308 to 1318 and a period of North Sea storminess from 1343 to 1362, known as 'the great drowning.' "

– Page 81

What we have in Kicking the Carbon Habit, then, is a cogent and for the most part well-balanced assessment of our chances for getting the greenhouse gases we produce under control in time to stave off the worst impacts of global warming. Sweet approaches the problem in a matter-of-fact way, pointing out that it's real but spending little time on those who try to insist it isn't. Neither is his tone alarmist; he merely describes the realistic prospects for progress. That restraint makes this book one of the best overall treatments of global warming for the layman.

Sweet's work does have some defects. For one thing, he's too pessimistic by far about the long-term role of renewables like wind, solar, and geothermal. He states on page 130 that "Coal and oil are not going to be replaced wholesale by renewable sources of energy in this century." Given the growth of wind energy (which he himself mentions1) and the way costs of solar (both photovoltaic and thermal) continue to fall, I think he's wrong. A century is a long time; just consider what the world was like in 1900. He devotes Chapter 11 to fission and fusion, covering both methods of generating power from nuclear forces adequately. However, he neglects prospective improvements in fission technology like the Advanced Fast Reactor. And he has a dim view of plutonium recycling. On page 191 he says, "As for the stretching of nuclear fuels, that benefit comes at the cost of having to widely transport fuels consisting of pure fissile material that could be ripe targets for terrorists seeking to build bombs." It is true that the original fuel-recycling process used with breeder reactors produced "pure fissile material." But, thanks to the AFR, there's a better way now — or there will be, if our federal government will ever fund the development through to completion. (See sidebar.)3

But Sweet, in my estimation, is too conscientious to have misstated what he was told in this way. I think he reported information he was given accurately. There's little chance of restarting AFR development now, and it's certainly true that renewables will be "bit players" in the energy picture for decades into the future. So I do not fault him for these statements. He also makes some historical errors (e.g. "Czechoslovakia" and "the Ukraine") and quite a few grammatical ones (he — or the book's editor — is frequently careless with commas; see my Errata page.) He provides extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and a good index. I give him top marks for this book, and rate it both a must-read and a keeper.

"This book has argued that global warming represents a kind of international emergency, requiring immediate concerted action. As greenhouse gases approach levels never seen in the last 700,000 years, we are drifting into uncharted waters, and so the rational thing to do is reverse course and get back out, the faster the better. The United States, responsible for a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, the world's richest and most capable country, and the country that uses energy the most extravagantly, should take especially aggressive action to reduce emissions. Rather than being a global laggard, The United States should be a world leader in this effort."

– Page 204

1 Compare what he reports on page 152: "The countries of the European Union added nearly 6 Gigawatts of wind capacity in 2004 alone, bringing their total installed capacity to 34.1 Gigawatts—nearly three-quarters of global capacity. And Europe appears to be far from the limits of what can be done to exploit wind."
2 It is possible to build a working A-bomb from reactor-grade plutonium; it's just much harder and gives far less "bang for the buck." See e.g. Reactor-Grade and Weapons-Grade Plutonium in Nuclear Explosives (excerpted from a January 1997 DOE publication.) Hence the "Integral" in Integral Fast Reactor: You reprocess the fuel where it's needed, making it harder to divert. Need I add that preventing your enemies from stealing your dangerous stuff is very basic to national security?
3 On the other hand, he correctly points out how unlikely fusion is to contribute useful power in the foreseeable future. And he's properly skeptical of the hydrogen economy.
4 For more information, see Integral Fast Reactors: Source of Safe, Abundant, Non-Polluting Power by George Stanford. Yes, I am aware that the National Center for Public Policy Research is a right-wing think tank with a reputation for denying global warming. But George Stanford worked on the IFR at Argonne (he's now retired) and his answers in that Q&A are legit. You can also find them, and more, on his home page at the Science Council for Global Initiatives (SCGI) — a non-profit organization of which Dr. James Hansen is also a member. So I trust Dr. Stanford's testimony.
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