I wanted to love this book. After all, its author belongs to a small subset of climate scientists who have become effective climate communicators. Like Michael Mann, Mark Maslin, Katharine Hayhoe, and Katharine Mach, Mark Jacobson has the enviable talent to translate difficult science into everyday language. David Letterman interviewed him; Joe Biden met with him; the Green Party of Canada cited him; and Apolitical named him one of the 100 most influential people in the climate world for 2022-23. If not a household name, Mark Jacobson is a rock star in climate science, policy, and politics. After all, not every professor of civil and environmental engineering has nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter, and not every professor of engineering knows Leonardo DiCaprio, or can call him Leo.
It was with much anticipation, then, that I read No Miracles Needed. The title alone is worth the price of admission. We don’t need a miracle, because the solutions to climate change, air pollution, and energy security already exist. According to Jacobson, 100% renewable energy is not the stuff of wishful thinking. It’s already here, because wind, water, and solar – or WWS for short – have the potential to revolutionize the world’s energy, transportation, and industrial sectors.
Across 15 brisk chapters, Jacobson walks us through the problems and the solutions in accessible – if stilted – prose. One doesn’t need a PhD in engineering to read this book, but one does need an open mind to the many possibilities of WWS, from wind and tidal turbines to salt-water batteries and borehole thermal energy storage. But it is precisely the absence of open minds that is holding us back. “The main obstacles,” Jacobson writes, “are social and political.” Think Big Oil, captured politicians, and client states with weak regulatory regimes that continue to greenlight carbon projects with 30-year life spans. Put another way, if we don’t need a technological miracle, we need a political miracle.
Unfortunately, history is not on our side. As energy historians remind us, energy transitions are better understood as energy additions: coal didn’t replace wood; oil and gas didn’t replace coal; and nuclear didn’t replace oil and gas. As a result, we have an energy mix. Unless the transition to WWS is accompanied by the rapid drawdown of fossil fuels then we will not solve the three-headed threat of climate change, air pollution, and energy security, something Jacobson clearly understands. Policymakers have to step up, he writes. And they are. To date, 16 American states and some 200 towns and cities have passed 100% WWS laws.
I especially liked Jacobson’s systematic dismantling of nuclear energy, or what Michael Mann calls a non-solution solution. To bring a nuclear reactor online takes 17 to 21 years; cost-overruns are inevitable and appalling; weapons proliferation is an under-appreciated risk; and CO2-equivalent emissions from the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant are not insignificant. Indeed, the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in Georgia used enough cement to build a sidewalk from Miami to Seattle. Add to this the risk of meltdown and radioactive waste, and suddenly the promise of nuclear energy is a lot less promising. The Finnish Green Party won’t like what Jacobson says about the Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Eurajoki, Finland, but when it endorsed nuclear energy in 2022 it left the Green fold. What about nuclear fusion? In theory, it could meet our energy needs for the rest of forever. But it’s 30 years from being 30 years away, and we don’t have anywhere near that kind of time.
In one small way, I’m going to have to update my lecture on urban heat islands and climate (in)justice in which I point to white roofs as a possible solution to excessive heat in urban centres. Not so fast, Jacobson writes. In fact, white roofs may add to global warming, in part because “they reduce the ability of air to rise, and thus of clouds to form.” Reduced cloudiness means more sunlight and more sunlight means higher temperatures. Talk about unintended consequences!
So, did I love this book? Not really, although there is much to love about it: its research is amazing; its accessibility is admirable; its can-do optimism is refreshing; its tone is reassuring; and its digressions into energy history are fun. Who knew that the mathematician and engineer Heron of Alexandria (circa 10 A.D. to circa 70 A.D.) was the first person to harness wind to generate power? Bottom line, Mark Jacobson cuts an impressive – and controversial – figure, and his book is detailed, thoughtful, and much needed.
Then why didn’t I love No Miracles Needed? Individual chapters are broken into sections, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, and sub-sub-sub-sections, making the narrative, well, choppy. And on at least one occasion – when, over three full pages, he went on and on and on about his all-electric home – Jacobson was self-satisfied and therefore off-putting. In a footnote, he even directs readers to the Canadian company that built his home and now features it on its website. I mean, who wouldn’t like to hire a luxury homebuilder to conceive, design, and build a beautiful and tastefully appointed all-electric home? I know I would. But I can’t afford a 3,500-square foot house with floor-to-ceiling windows, an integrated staircase, and an induction cooktop, nor, I am guessing, can 99.9% of the planet. There was a bit of name dropping too, not a lot, but enough: Bernie Sanders, Scarlett Johannson, and Yoko Ono, among others, and, of course, Leo DiCaprio. Finally, I was surprised by the publisher’s decision to feature a front-cover blurb from Mark Ruffalo, the actor, climate activist, and, with Mark Jacobson, a founder of The Solutions Project. As a rule of thumb, a friend shouldn’t blurb a friend’s book, something I suspect that Cambridge University Press, which is a serious academic press, knows.
But maybe I am being prickly. Read No Miracles Needed and let me know what you think.