Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming And the Case for Renewable And Nuclear Energy by William Sweet








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Anyone who still doubts global warming has ignored all the scientific evidence. We’ve moved onto what to do about it, and William Sweet’s new book, Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming And the Case for Renewable And Nuclear Energy, helps readers consider the issue. The science that Sweet presents is readable, and his solutions are reasoned, but will be difficult to implement. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, “The Air We Breathe: The Human Costs of Coal Combustion,” pp. 27-30:


The reasons coal has become the fuel most used to generate elec­tricity in the United States—not to mention countries like China, and India, where it’s even more dominant—are not hard to identify. Unlike oil, which must be imported from distant and untrustworthy foreign suppliers, it is available right here and readily recoverable in gigantic quantities. What is more, it will be in adequate supply for cen­turies to come. Most important of all, considered in a narrow monetary sense, burning coal is the cheapest way of generating electricity. As oil and natural gas prices skyrocketed, starting in 2003, coal’s advantage has widened. This is why it accounts for well over half the electricity produced in the United States.

Coal’s disadvantages, on the other hand, are largely hidden. The en­tire process of extracting coal and then disposing of waste products, which are hugely voluminous, is confined to just a few geographically and sparsely populated regions of the country. Under normal circum­stances, only a tiny fraction of the U.S. population ever sees the coal in­dustry in action. As for the emissions from coal-fired electricity plants, even though they are thought to cause thousands of deaths annually in the United States and hundreds of thousands of added hospital admis­sions, their effects are entirely statistical: old Uncle John may have a chronic respiratory condition that was fatally aggravated by constant exposure to coal emissions, but nobody ever says, “Poor old John. He died from breathing coal smoke.”

The greenhouse gases associated with coal combustion—mainly car­bon dioxide—are completely invisible. Their effects came to be generally recognized by the public only in recent decades, and even now, few people have any inkling just how drastic those effects are. The climate ramifica­tions of coal combustion are the main theme of this book. But to think sensibly about all the advantages and disadvantages of coal, versus the alternative energy sources that will be considered in part 3, it’s necessary first to have a complete view of coal’s downside as well as its upside.


Anybody who has ever suffered a serious asthma attack, or watched almost helplessly as a child or aging parent struggled with one, knows the terror of not knowing for sure whether the next breath will be enough. Besides being enormously debilitating and requiring constant vigilance among chronic sufferers and those who care for them, asthma can and often does kill. When aggravated by particu­lates in the air, including aerosols formed from sulfur and nitrogen compounds, the condition is even more recurrent, debilitating, and frightening, and somewhat more deadly. The same is true of other medical conditions that can be compounded or even induced by ex­posure to severe pollution levels—upper and lower respiratory condi­tions of every kind, from minor colds to progressive bronchitis and fatal bouts of pneumonia, as well as cardiopulmonary conditions that can lead in the extreme case to cardiac arrest. On the hottest and most unpleasant summer days, when ozone alerts are declared throughout the eastern United States, the old and infirm are warned to stay in­side and minimize activity. The ozone in the lower atmosphere that can stop their hearts is a by-product of power plant combustion and vehicle emissions. (This should not be confused with stratospheric ozone. Although chemically identical, it shields us from ultraviolet radiation and, until recently, was thinning dangerously as a result of reactions with chlorofluorocarbon gases used in refrigeration systems and aerosol spray cans.)

The kinds of noxious atmospheric conditions that can affect half the country at once fortunately are rare events. But in the most polluted parts of the country, where power plants are concentrated or traffic congestion is at its worst, dangerously high levels of pollution are not unusual, and the more astute physicians treating patients with condi­tions like asthma learn to watch out for them. Those places are not always where one might imagine.

Take Asheville, a pleasantly sleepy town in western North Carolina, on the edge of the scenic Smoky Mountains, best known to America at large as the birthplace of the novelist Thomas Wolfe. If one were to map the country’s largest coal-burning utilities—Ohio’s American Electric Power and Cinergy, Atlanta’s Southern Company, and North Carolina’s own Duke Power among them—and draw lines connecting all their coal-fired plants, the lines would all intersect in Asheville’s vicinity. Accordingly, it ranks as one of the country’s most chronically polluted cities. Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” But if you happen to be a less advantaged citizen of Asheville, and if you have the bad luck to suffer from asthma and find yourself showing up often in the middle of the night at a local clinic for emergency nebulizer treatments, you may wish you could just leave home and live some­where else, anywhere else.

Cincinnati, Ohio, though not far at all from Asheville as the crow flies or the coal particulate blows, corresponds better to the average person’s preconception of what a really polluted city is like. In the southeastern part of the state, on the Ohio River, Cincinnati indeed is one of the more difficult places to live and breathe freely. Dr. Jonathan A. Bernstein, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Univer­sity of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine, reports that on high-smog days, he regularly sees more asthma visits and more patients generally suffering from shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing.’ On the very smoggiest days, he tells his patients to try not to come in at all because being outside may be more dangerous than going without treatment. And those very smoggy days are not uncommon, as emis­sions from local power plants tend to get trapped down low in the Ohio Valley during temperature inversions, in which cold air holding pollutants is trapped near the surface by a warmer layer immediately above, so that the normal process of upward convective diffusion is stopped. Though smog may be associated in people’s minds mainly with traffic, and in places like Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. is in fact caused mainly by cars and trucks, in Cincinnati coal-fired power is overwhelmingly the source, says Bernstein. The pollutants blow in not just from plants in Ohio itself but also from those in neighboring West Virginia and Kentucky.

As chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immu­nology’s committee on air pollution and author of a report about pol­lution for allergists, Bernstein knows what he’s talking about. Yet even for a person of his experience, there is rarely, if ever, a case where the physician can say that pollution is the whole cause or even the main cause of a specific patient’s condition. “If patients are allergic, there are interactions between particles and allergens, and it’s very difficult to disentangle that, though you might consult the air quality index to get a sense of the situation,” he explains. The morbidity and mortality con­nected with air pollution, like the diseases well known to be associated with tobacco use, are by nature statistical. Only by conducting large epidemiological studies, in which every variable that could be relevant is controlled to gauge the effect of the pollutant in question, can its impact be guessed.


Readers who are interested in learning why coal is such a problem will find answers on the pages of Kicking the Carbon Habit. Those who are interested in considering alternatives will also find much here to think about. While Sweet’s presentation can be grim at times, it seemed to me to be very realistic and reasonable.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2007 issue of Executive Times


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