Chuse Science

Late yesterday, reports started zinging around suggesting that the Obama transition team was ready to announce its energy and environment leaders.

By now it’s clear they are the following: former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Lisa Jackson will head up the Environmental Protection Agency; current Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Steven Chu will become Secretary of Energy; and Clinton administration EPA head Carol Browner will fill a newly created post, that of White House “climate czar.” In addition, Nancy Sutley, the current City of Los Angeles “deputy mayor” for Energy and Environment (and, of these four, the person with the thinnest Wikipedia profile), will come in as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Some of this is fairly predictable, and some of it isn’t. So I want to devote this post to hailing the simply extraordinary. The naming of Steve Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist, to the energy post signals a vastly different approach to science, and especially climate science, in the Obama administration.

President Obama hasn’t even named his presidential science adviser, yet here we have a cabinet pick that understands the research community, the importance of funding science in key areas (including, but not limited to, energy), the United States’ competitiveness concerns in relation to other nations, and much else. Chu even heartily endorsed the ScienceDebate2008 initiative which sought to get the candidates to discuss science policy on the campaign trail.

Energy research, meanwhile, is Chu’s specialty–making him a perfect pick for an administration that wants to remake the way the United States powers itself. At Berkeley, Chu has been central in the development of a $ 500 million partnership with oil company BP to fund research into new biologically based energy sources, chiefly to serve as fuels.

At the same time, he has pushed the lab to become a leader in solar energy research, and has himself transformed into a climate campaigner who put it like this in an interview with Science: “This is a problem we have to address, and we have a limited amount of time to do it. What we do in the first half of this century, we will see the consequences for the next 500 to 1000 years.”

A few weeks ago in Los Angeles, I saw Chu speak at a National Academy of Sciences event devoted to connecting science and the entertainment industry. Chu focused on global warming and compared our civilization to the Titanic, about to hit an iceberg unless we wake up and recognize the course we’re on. It was a brilliant message, although I can testify that while Chu may be an electrifying choice for Energy Secretary, he is not a very electrifying lecturer.

But far more important is that we actually have someone, at such a high post in government, who revels in the life of the mind. In Chu’s Nobel Laureate biography, he notes that in the eighth grade he “taught himself tennis by reading a book,” discusses how Richard Feynman’s lectures inspired him to keep going in physics, and describes at length the stimulating intellectual environment at Bell Labs, where he spent much of his career and had “no obligation to do anything except the research we loved best. The joy and excitement of doing science permeated the halls.”

I can’t think of any words that better demonstrate that a new day has finally arrived for America.

Above all, the choice of Chu reinforces the fact that the incoming administration will be very, very serious about stopping global warming and driving clean energy innovation. You don’t appoint such a prominent climate change campaigner to the energy post if you don’t want to be hounded constantly about the problem. You don’t give the top post, at an agency that specializes in energy research, to a solar, efficiency, and biofuels guy unless you want to see movement in these areas.

Next week, when Barack Obama formally announces these picks, we may also learn a more about his climate and energy plans. There is every reason to expect they will be very ambitious; and now we know he has the team to carry them out.


However, it seems that there may be dark clouds hovering over who will be appointed to take charge of USDA and USFDA. There are a number of names being bandied about who have close ties with the corporations who have dominated and misused these departments for a long time now.

Chris, do you have inside knowledge about who are the most likely candidates for these appointments?

It is time that good science was returned to these two important areas.

Obama’s appointment of Vilsack as Sec of Agriculture is not good. This fellow is a great friend of Monsanto and the other GM pushers. GM is only successful because of the junk science put out by its promoters.

This appointment is not good for science at all.

Keeping my fingers crossed that he will do better for USFDA.

Its been a real lift to study who Chu is.  He comes across well in a video.  Hopefully you saw him on a bad lecturing day, and he’s better than you think.  People say he’s a great communicator.  Its exciting to believe the US is finally going to show some leadership on climate to the world. 

For an idea of the type of thinking Chu signs off on, people might want to read the InterAcademy Council Report “Lighting the Way:  Toward a Sustainable Energy Future” published October 2007.  This document was put out by a Study Panel co-chaired by Stephen Chu.  The IAC is as prestigious a scientific organization as exists in the world, as it was created by “all of the world’s science academies”, set up to “mobilize the best scientists and engineers worldwide to provide high quality advice”.  Its hard to get a more distinguished individual than someone like this. 

My only caveat about Chu is that I’ve read that he stands for implementing a Copenhagen agreement that will achieve a limit on global warming of 2 degrees, a target James Hansen has described as falling so far short of what is required that it is a “recipe for global disaster”.  Because that 2 degree, approximately 450 ppm, beyond which lies “dangerous” climate change position evolved based on knowledge Chu is now saying has been overtaken by events, i.e. there is clear evidence reality is more grave than that,  I’m interested in hearing him clarify.  I’ve seen quotes from him using the word “safe” as if there was some level of CO2 beyond 325 - 350 ppm that could be described that way. My antennae detect a bit of clarification is needed:  an image that comes to my mind is we are on the Titanic after it has hit the iceberg, as opposed to this quote Chris Mooney has provided above where Chu states we are the Titanic before it has hit.  There’s too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere already, and it is getting past time for people to face it.

But in this political situation where the outgoing President is a denier, the Prime Minister of Canada is denounced by Nature magazine, and is a denier, this is a minor point.  This Chu is inspring. 

Go Obama!