President-elect Barack Obama recently chose Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to be his energy secretary. Director of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu is an advocate of renewable energy research and finding scientific solutions to climate change.
NPR's Christopher Joyce spoke with Chu in October 2007. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
On Reducing Energy Consumption
I am actually optimistic — I will be dead before this will be true or false — that the world can, in a peak population of 9.5 or 10 billion, which is now the prediction, have a carbon output that actually can be reduced significantly from what we are doing today.
That means, for example, that developed countries, especially the United States, have to go down by factors of 4 or more. With new tech coming online, and things that one hopes to develop, the goal is not to say: 'OK, everybody uses less energy, don't heat your homes, don't light your homes, don't use AC.' That is not the goal. The goal is to have a standard of living that is carbon neutral and works well with the world. And I think it's possible.
Europe is going ahead. It's become national priorities in many countries in Europe. In the United States, it is not the major priority to get on a carbon diet.
On Challenges To Creating Environmental Policy
It's a slow-boiling crisis ... It is fundamentally a crisis situation, but a very different one because the scale is so much different. Unlike the ozone layer and the substitute for Freon, where a quick technological fix actually can right it quickly, [energy challenges are much more complex].
Let's talk biofuels, which is only about 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget. Take refineries, and say you want to build up a [cellulosic biofuel] industry, to get 10 percent additive into gasoline. You're talking about $3 billion investment in biorefineries. It's a small amount, but it's big if you're a company who wants to make this commercially viable. You want to be guaranteed that it will survive; quite often, you do need subsidies. But you always have to start with a sunset clause and a clear signal that, 'don't start anything that won't survive.'
On Getting Businesses To Reduce Carbon Footprints
A price on carbon is absolutely one of the — if I had to name six things, that would certainly be one of them. It's not the be-all, end-all; you need other things. There are certainly regulatory things, like [building] insulation, or higher fuel standards will also be needed — but certainly a price on carbon. Now here's the problem with the price on carbon ... right now, the stakeholders of various kinds — they want to minimize it, and they, most importantly, want loopholes.
In a price on carbon, whether it's a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system or it's a mixture, I more want to see, over a 10 to 15 year period, no loopholes, a steady increase. Give people some time to adjust, but say, 'There's no hiding.' In 15 years, we'll be at a certain point where it will actually make a difference.
On Working Now To Protect Future Generations
People who will bear the brunt of it are those who've just been born or about to be born. We're talking about things in the later half of the century that will really come to [affect us]. For the next 10 years or so, Washington will be a little bit warmer or so, but that's manageable. When water supplies go away in the later half of the 21st century, that's less manageable. And when huge population displacement occurs, that's less manageable. And, well, those people can't protest on the Mall. They're not born yet.