David MacKay: The first factual meme on renewable energy?

A book about climate change that gets rave reviews from folk at oil companies, environmental groups and the Number One Blog of All Time has to be worth a peek. The Economist liked it, aforementioned blog BoingBoing calls it ‘The Freaknomics of conservation, climate and energy’ and there’s a free downloadable version, so David MacKay’s book ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ seems destined for greatness, at least online.

David MacKay, a professor in the Department of Physics at Cambridge, sets out to answer the question: “can we conceivably live sustainably?”, and to do so not by coming up with new data, new theories or new discoveries but by explaining what is known, in language that a 12-year-old would not find too taxing. That’s not to downplay the quality of the research involved – but from reading the first chapter alone we can say that the book’s sheer readability is really quite impressive. His enthusiasm is endearing – ‘Logarithmic graphs are great for understanding growth.’

MacKay seeks to avoid considering the ethical questions of what economic and social costs should be borne by whom in the pursuit of climate stability, and merely give the reader enough information to make their own decision. This is easier said than done and as he himself acknowledges that his own views sometimes creep in:

Some “sceptics” have asserted that the recent increase in CO2 concentration is a natural phenomenon. Does “sceptic” mean “a person who has not even glanced at the data”? Don’t you think, just possibly, something may have happened between 1800AD and 2000AD? Something that was not part of the natural processes present in the preceding thousand years?

To be fair, he expresses irritation with some environmentalists too – particularly for trotting out numbers which sound impressive but don’t really add to anyone’s understanding of what the problem is, and how it might reasonably be addressed.

After canvassing the basic statistics on climate change, CO2 emissions, and energy measurement, he gets down to evaluating whether or not the UK could really survive on renewable fuels, and what such a scenario might entail. It also tackles myths about climate change, renewables, and energy efficiency, and tips for saving energy in the home.

We’ll have more on the book when we’ve read the whole thing, but you can get started reading it online and find out for yourself if he succeeds in his goal of making the climate change/energy debate. Comments are welcome.

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