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Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
Richard A. Muller
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
368 pp., $26.95

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Science in Focus: Bill McKibben


Energy for Future Presidents, Part 4

Sorry: global warming is NOT good.

Richard Muller is an interesting figure, and people should read his book. But with a bit of a jaundiced eye.

A few years ago Muller didn't believe the mainstream scientists who said the planet was warming, so he performed his own analysis. Turned out he was wrong and they were right. And since some of the money for his study came from the climate-change-denying Koch family, he got a gratifyingly large amount of press. So far so good.

But in that press, and in the book, Muller continues to insist that mainstream scientists are wrong about something else. "Maybe," he says, "global warming is good." In fact, he used his book tour to advance this thesis, setting up a series of straw men about particular weather phenomena—his favorite was Hurricane Katrina—that he said were not conclusively linked to climate change.

Yet again his opinion was not based on painstaking scientific investigation—if he went through the work of investigating the effects of planetary heating, as did earlier to establish whether the planet was indeed warming, one imagines that, good scientist that he is, Muller would be forced to agree with the overwhelming majority of his peers. Global warming, in fact, is very bad. So far we've raised the temperature one degree and that's melted the Arctic. The carbon we've poured in the atmosphere has made the ocean 30 percent more acidic. We are engaged in a profound spasm of de-creation.

Were the stakes not so absurdly high, one could simply enjoy the many fine attributes of Muller's book—particularly the chapter near the end that simply describes the physics of energy. But the stakes are high, and they call for more careful writing than he provides. On point after point, he manages to make errors that undercut his tendentious arguments. (In one that struck close to home, he accused 350.org, the climate campaign that I work for on a volunteer basis, of adopting a "West-only" approach to fighting climate change. But in fact, ten seconds worth of internet-clicking would have shown we're active in almost every country but North Korea; CNN described our work as the "most widespread political activity in the planet's history.")

It's very useful when scientists enter the political and literary arenas to get their ideas across; we need more engagement, not less. But they do need to understand that accuracy is no less important in these fields than it is in the lab.

Bill McKibben is a co-founder of 350.org. His book The End of Nature, published in 1989, was the first to give an account of global warming addressed to a general audience. He wrote a full review of Richard Muller's Energy for Future Presidents in the New York Review of Books for Oct. 11, 2012 (digitally available to subscribers only); the issue of Nov. 22 included a letter in response from Muller, with a reply by McKibben.

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