Saturday, August 22, 2009

Steven Chu: The Fierce Urgency of Now

Nobel prize winning quantum physicist Steven Chu Ph.D is the most qualified Energy Secretary ever to lead the Department of Energy. He is a far cry from the kind of people that some Republican Presidents have appointed to the job. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan appointed a dentist and the GW Bush administration pursued an approach to energy that can best be summarized by the now infamous chant, "drill, baby, drill."

Chu is a central part of President Obama's efforts to transform the US economy and cut US carbon emissions 80% by 2050. Chu is the kind of public minded individual who after winning his Nobel prize in 1997, decided that his talents were best applied to the most pressing problem facing the world today, global warming.

As reported in a recent Time Magazine article, Chu is not only a brilliant scientist, he understands the economic importance of sustainable energy and he has the business credentials to back up his scientific genius. "He cut his teeth in the entrepreneurial culture of Bell Labs and spent the rest of his career around Silicon Valley; he's served on the boards of a battery company, a semiconductor firm and two biotech start-ups. In his last job, he shook up the bureaucracy of DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to tackle real-world energy problems, while becoming a leading expert on energy innovation."

"We're trying to communicate that climate change is very, very serious, but hey, by the way, this is an incredible economic opportunity." Chu added, "Energy, is all about money."

"He's brilliant, and he understands the full breadth of the energy portfolio," says Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "There's no precedent for that."

Despite his undeniable competence, Chu has a difficult road ahead of him. Many Republicans have dismissed global warming as a hoax by rejecting the vast pool of climate science. Even some Democrats from coal, oil and farm states share the Republican's delusional denial.

Chu's recent visit to China reveals that Americans can learn a great deal from the Chinese. As evidenced in a global survey of 20 top priorities; Americans ranked global warming last with only 44% demanding action on the issue. In stark contrast, 94% of the Chinese people polled indicated that they wanted to see action on global warming.

The Chinese are serious about climate change and clean energy. While many Americans are in a state of denial the Chinese are preparing for a carbon-constrained economy. Despite increasing energy demands China has halved the number of new coal-fired plants being built. The Chinese commitment to managing climate change is evident in everything from the cars they are driving to the efficient transmission lines they have erected. Further, Chinese investments in wind and solar puts them on track to be the world's largest producer of renewable energy by next year.

"Every Chinese leader I met was absolutely determined to do something about their carbon emissions," Chu said. However, "some U.S. policymakers still don't think this is a problem."

In the US, the clean-energy bill will have to wait until health care legislation is passed. And with Republican's vowing to make health care Obama's Waterloo, it is going to be a tough fight. If the Senate succumbs to partisan interests and misinformation, the hype surrounding the American economic decline may indeed become a reality, and we should not forget that inaction in America is not only a domestic issue, it imperils the globe.

American leadership on climate change is vital and although health care is important, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (Waxman-Markey Bill) is arguably the most important piece of legislation ever put before the Senate. "What the US and China do over the next decade," said Chu, "will determine the fate of the world." And with US per capita emissions being four times higher then China, it is understandable that China will not accept an emissions cap until such a cap is ratified in the US Senate.

As with the health care debate, successful passage of climate change legislation will depend upon confronting critic's bold faced lies. As Chu said, "science has unambiguously shown that we're altering the destiny of our planet. Is this the legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren?"

Climate change legislation is vital to the future of America and the world. As Chu said "Let's not let this incredible opportunity slip away."
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