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January 9, 2012

Stanford physicist Burton Richter's moderate approach to climate change

Stanford physicist's prescriptions include more natural gas and nuclear power, doubts about renewable energy goals and a new way to gain political support.

By Mark Golden

Nobel laureate Burton Richter advocates increased reliance on nuclear power for the world's energy needs. (Photo: Bardgabbard / Creative Commons)

Last month, Stanford Nobel laureate Burton Richter received the 2011 Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science for Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Richter, who was in his mid-70s when he began work on the book, remains active, diving into energy and environmental issues. He also has been happily married for 51 years. "That helps a lot," he says.

International climate negotiations concluded recently in Durban, South Africa. The results were seen as pretty weak. What are your thoughts?

The one good thing to come out of Durban is that China and India have agreed that by 2020 they have to join in a plan to reduce their emissions. For environmentalists, the best recent news is the discovery of shale gas in China. They can start switching from burning coal to natural gas for generating electricity.


If you got one wish on international policy on climate change, what would it be?

That we would abandon the stupid notion of legally binding agreements on emissions. What are the fines for not meeting your agreements? Who levies the fine? Where does the money go? There are no sanctions, so what does "legally binding" mean?

Also, 15 countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of the world's emissions. Why are we trying to get a deal with 196 countries, most of which are spending all their time trying to figure out how to get the richer countries to pay them money? What we really need is to get these 15 countries, which includes some developed countries and some rapidly developing countries, to agree on a deal.

We did this once before with ozone in the Montreal Protocol. We brought together the big emitters and cut a deal without a legally binding treaty. Yes, there was some cheating early on, but we got past that. The ozone hole has started to close, and since the original agreement was signed every country has joined.


Your book takes a middle ground between the deniers of climate change and what you call "ultra-greens," who insist on drastic action immediately but reject nuclear power and some other low-carbon solutions. Can you talk about that middle ground?

What I tried to say is: Here is what we know, and here is how we know it. Here's what the uncertainties are. Here's what I think we ought to be doing. But the reader should think about what we ought to be doing, too.

The future is hard to predict, because it hasn't happened yet. For some, this is an excuse for inaction. "We don't know enough. Since we don't know enough, we shouldn't do anything." Whereas there are a lot of things we can do now that don't cost much at all and that can have a relatively large impact.

Secondly, no matter how good some solution is, some people will demand that we wait for a better solution. This is a problem that some environmentalists generate, because they're not willing to settle for partial solutions. The example I use is switching from coal to natural gas to generate electricity, which would eliminate 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, and by the way, the electricity would be cheaper.

California has this "Million Solar Roofs" program ($2.1 billion in state subsidies). For 15 to 20 percent of the cost, I could eliminate twice as much CO2 emissions by simply converting the Four Corners coal-fired power plant from coal to natural gas. That doesn't say don't use any solar. But it does say let's do things that can have a big impact now, and let's give credit for it. The mandate to utilities should be to reduce emissions. It shouldn't be to use certain technologies.


Lately you have been saying that too much of the focus has been on climate change, and instead we should be talking about reducing dependence on fossil fuels for reasons of national security, the economy and the environment in a broad sense, not just global warming.

My new shtick in the talks that I give I call "energy in three dimensions." For example, we just put in new mileage standards for cars – 54 miles per gallon by 2035. You didn't hear Sen. Inhofe say "that's asinine," or any of that stuff. Why not? Because, if we could make it all happen today, oil imports would go down by 6 million barrels per day, our balance of payments would drop by $200 billion per year, we wouldn't have to spend so much money defending the Persian Gulf, and by the way we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions a lot. There are certain areas where you can find common ground with all sorts of people.


People understand that oil is a national security issue, but how do you sell reducing the use of coal as national security?

I can sell it as a public health issue, as an acid rain issue and as an economic issue, because gas is cheaper. There is a political problem here. It's obvious to anyone that on national economic grounds we should shut down these coal plants as fast as we can replace them. However, you have a bunch of senators from coal-producing states and from states that are heavily dependent on coal, like those in the Southeast, that get most of their electricity from coal-fired power plants. So, you've got to get the politics of this right. I won't say it's easy, but you are just going to have to run right over West Virginia.

One way to get there would be a revenue-neutral tax on carbon, but you have to figure out what you do with the money. Do you just give it back to taxpayers, or do you use some of it to ease the transition for states in the Southeast? We have to be in a hurry to figure this out, and it must come with impeccable Republican credentials. After the presidential election next year, no matter who wins, you will be able to get things done, but you've got to be prepared to lay it out immediately after the election.


In your book, the first priority is energy efficiency, much of which can be done with available technologies while saving money. Why don't people do these things?

Lots of reasons. One problem is a complete lack of knowledge. Suppose you are homeowner. Why not use compact fluorescent lights, CFLs? A CFL bulb costs maybe $6 while an incandescent one costs a buck, but the CFL lasts 10 times as long and takes just 25 percent of the electricity. Over the lifetime of the bulb you save $70, but most people don't know that.

Another issue is capital costs for the bigger items. Double-pane windows are very expensive. To retrofit your house with double-pane windows could cost something like $6,000. That's a block for most people.

And there is the problem of mixed motives. A house builder wants the sale price of his house to be most advantageous. If he puts in the most efficient appliances, the selling price of the house will go up. And you don't have to do an energy audit when you sell a house. In California, you must do a termite inspection, but not an energy audit. And for apartments, the landlord buys the furnace, but the renter pays for the gas. So, the landlord wants to put in a cheap furnace and to hell with the renter.


A criticism of your book is that you too easily dismiss two things: nuclear's safety issues and the potential for renewable energy. Since the book came out, we've had the Fukushima disaster and solar costs have declined sharply. Would you revise your positions now?

For nuclear, I call this a problem of technology hazards – perception versus reality. My book gives some data on years of life lost per billion kilowatt-hour generated based on the primary energy source. Fossil fuels are all terrible, though coal is much worse than gas. Nuclear is really good, much less years of life lost than even solar photovoltaic. The analysis I give in the book includes Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. It doesn't include Fukushima, but if it did the analysis wouldn't change. Do we have to make nuclear plants safer? Yes. Are they becoming safer? Yes.

California just put out a report on how it will achieve an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. The report makes clear that we just can't do it without nuclear power.

As for renewables, is somebody going to invent the real holy grail of renewable energy? To me that is grid-scale energy storage, which means capacity in gigawatt-days not kilowatt-hours. The big problem with wind and solar is their enormous variability. I don't have affordable systems to store the output. If I did have affordable storage, I can see getting beyond about 15 percent with wind and solar, but you can't do that economically today. I would like to see a lot more money being used to develop this.

Mark Golden is a communications/energy writer at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.



Burton Richter, SLAC and Freeman Spogli Institute: (650) 926-2601,

Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 724-1629,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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