Book Review: Physics for Future Presidents

By Jerry Levine

Today’s Machining World Archives August 2010 Volume 06 Issue 06

Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller

I retired in April, 1998 from Amoco, about three months before BP bought them out and after spending 20 years lobbying for Amoco and the oil industry. During that time I helped negotiate a significant amount of energy and environmental legislation and regulation.
One of the more interesting assignments I was involved in was preparing the U.S. to sign the Kyoto Treaty. Vice-President Gore’s office convened a group of about 20 parties to develop plans to meet the treaty for the transportation sector. The parties included lobbyists from several environmental groups, consumer advocates, Ralph Nader’s organization, federal and state EPA and DOE officials, ethanol and bio-diesel manufacturers, automobile manufacturers, electric and fuel cell car advocates, and one oil company—Amoco. A mediation form ran the meetings and negotiations, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers did the cost estimates.

We met for a year, listened to scores of scientific and pseudo-scientific presentations, and reviewed myriad cost/benefit analyses. About a month before Mr. Gore left for Kyoto, the Senate passed a resolution by a vote of 97-0 not to ratify the treaty if the Vice-President signed it. He signed it anyway, and 13 years later it still sits not ratified.

When it comes to global warming, politics and spin doctors overwhelm the science. But in the end, the President has to make a decision on a course of action, and one hopes it will be based on sound science. Into this political maelstrom comes a wonderful book, Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard Muller, a physics professor at UC-Berkeley and a past winner of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. The book lays out in math-free plain English the minimum a President needs to know to make informed and possibly life or death decisions.

Topics addressed include terrorism, nukes, space, energy and global warming. Each topic is addressed in 50-100 pages with a one page presidential summary. For brevity, I will only discuss the sections on energy and global warming.

Public knowledge concerning energy and global warming is fled with massive misinformation. America’s economy was built around our cheap and abundant fossil fuels and the worldwide oil supply can still last several hundred years. Even though the U.S. has much less oil available, we still have several centuries of coal and natural gas reserves available. The downside of fossil fuel use is the environmental impact from burning coal—notably, global warming. At current rates of CO2 generation per GNP, the real global warming problem is in the developing world. Any CO2 reductions made in the U.S. or Europe will be offset by major increases of emissions in China, India, Brazil and others. China and India’s reluctance to commit to making significant reductions was one of the major causes of the collapse of the Copenhagen Climate Conference last December.

One of global warming’s most public proponents, Al Gore, tends to exaggerate greatly. Muller chides Al Gore for “knowing so many things that just isn’t so.” As the exaggerations of the facts are exposed, already skeptics dismiss the dangers as well. Muller also attacks the scientist Michael Mann and his infamous and erroneous “hockey stick” plot of world temperature, which drove the UN’s panel on climate change to warn of imminent danger. Interestingly, Muller’s book was published in 2008, about one year before the “Climate-gate” scandal exposed Mann for statistical errors and obfuscating data. These revelations also helped bring down Copenhagen.

Muller is an advocate of big time energy conservation, significantly increased CAFE standards, clean coal, and more nuclear power. He encourages government support of wind and solar projects, but sees them as expensive and of limited value. He advocates canceling the subsidies for corn ethanol while championing the growth of switch-grass and other efficient crops. On a smaller scale, he recommends efficient fluorescent and LED lights as well as building insulation and cool roofs, technologies that are even affordable in the third world.

Even after implementing all of this, CO2 emissions would still not be back to where they were in 1990 (the Kyoto requirement), let alone back to where they were 100 years ago, which is where we need to be to control the CO2-generated global warming.

We live in complex times and Physics for Future Presidents cuts through the multitude of current scientific and political issues in a straightforward manner. It exposes popular myths without a political spin. I wish I had this book when I was working.

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