The Burning Question

Book Review by Les Grady
The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s
coal and gas.  So how do we quit?
Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark
Greystone Books, Vancouver/Berkeley, 2013
ISBN 13:9781771640077

TheBurningQuestionAs popularized in 2012 by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, science has made it clear that humans can put just so much CO2 in the atmosphere without causing catastrophic global warming.  This means that we must stop burning fossil fuels and leave the bulk of them in the ground.  The burning question, therefore, is how to do that without disrupting the global economy?  This book addresses that question.

Having read a bit about global energy supplies and the unimaginable quantities of energy that humans use, I have been pondering that question for some time.  Thus, I started reading this book with a great deal of anticipation, hoping for some clear guidance on the path forward.  Perhaps my expectations were too great, but they were not met.  This probably speaks more to the enormity of the task than to the quality of this book.  The authors have done a good job of pulling together a large amount of material in a logical manner and with an easily readable writing style (if one can overlook a few quizzical phrases that seem to be common to British English).  They have also been willing to speculate about technologies and strategies that might unlock the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry has on the world, for which they are to be commended.  Thus, all in all, I recommend the book, particularly if you have only recently begun to grapple with the problem and want a good summary of all of the issues involved.

The text is 200 pages long with another 68 pages of notes and index.  It is organized into five parts comprising 19 chapters.  Both Amazon and Google Books have samples from the book, including the table of contents, so you can go to either to learn more about the organization.

Part 5, “What now?” was the part of the book that resonated most with me, and of course is what the rest of the book prepares the reader for.  I particularly liked the first chapter in it, “Waking up – Facing the facts.”  Unlike many articles you read about how to communicate with the public about climate change, these authors recommend a straight-on approach.  “Given where we are now, it’s crucial that more people hear the simple facts load and clear: that climate change presents huge risks; that our efforts to solve it so far haven’t worked; and that there’s a moral imperative to constrain unabated fossil fuel use on behalf of current and especially future generations.  It’s often assumed that the world isn’t ready for this kind of message – that it’s too negative or scary or confrontational.  But reality needs facing head on – and anyhow the truth may be more interesting and inspiring than the watered down version.”  This is a conclusion I have come to myself, so you can see why I liked this chapter.

I also liked Chapter 16, “Pushing the right technologies – hard”, perhaps because it also conveys some thoughts I’ve been having lately.  One concerns carbon capture and storage (CCS).  CCS faces some huge hurdles, both technological and physical.  For example, a physical limitation, which the authors don’t mention, is that each gallon of oil burned results in three gallons of (liquefied) CO2.  Consequently, it will be a real challenge to find sufficient appropriate subsurface space into which to put the stuff.  Nevertheless, the authors see CCS as the key to getting the big fossil fuel companies and countries on board as part of the solution.  They state “… no one is better placed to dominate the world of carbon sequestration than the big oil companies.  A plausible global market in carbon capture could therefore give some of the world’s most powerful countries and companies – and the companies with the most to lose from scaling down fossil fuel use – a powerful incentive to support climate legislation.”  While this idea will doubtless grate on some who view the fossil fuel industry as the enemy, there could well be some wisdom in it.  We need to be focused on the main objective – reducing CO2 in the atmosphere – and if this requires some uncomfortable compromises, so be it.

Another uncomfortable compromise that Berners-Lee and Clark think bears consideration concerns nuclear energy.  “The key point about the nuclear debate, therefore, is that we shouldn’t allow it to distract us from the question of how to leave fossil fuels in the ground.  That said, it is important to ask whether nuclear should be part of the energy mix that replaces fossil fuels, ….”  After admitting the well-known downsides of nuclear, they then point out that France converted almost all of its electric generating capacity to nuclear in only 11 years, demonstrating that rapid deployment is, indeed, possible.  Furthermore, “… most mainstream energy analysts believe that rejecting nuclear would make an already difficult task even tougher and more expensive ….”  They go on to say, “Our own view, given the profound threat of climate change, is that we’d be foolish to limit our options.  At the very least campaigning against nuclear seems like an odd use of time and effort.”  Finally, after more discussion of the new generations of nuclear reactors they conclude “Both in terms of technology and what’s at stake, the context of the nuclear discussion is very different today from how it was a few decades ago and at a minimum it is important that all those with long held views consider the issue with fresh eyes.”  To which I say, Amen!

The concluding chapter of the book deals with the fact that we all have a role in solving this problem.  No efforts are too small.  Rather than all of us taking on the responsibility to act, “we could keep on as we are: ignoring or playing down the risks and putting responsibility for action elsewhere.  But that would mean taking a monumental gamble with our children’s future, and a species as intelligent as ours surely wouldn’t do that.  Would it?”

The Burning Question poses many interesting questions.  Hence it is well worth reading if you are concerned about how to address the root cause of climate change, our use of fossil fuels.

The views expressed are mine alone and should not be interpreted as the views of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley or its Steering Committee.

March 2015

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