Steven Chu’s full global warming interview: “This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children.”

I previously blogged on the blunt LAT interview that Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave last week (see Chu: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California”).

Now the reporter, Jim Tankersley, has posted online (here) virtually the entire 40-minute interview, Chu’s first since being confirmed as secretary. Tankersley notes that:

Chu isn’t a climate scientist — he’s a Nobel-winning physicist — but he’s served on several climate-change commissions, and in his position, will be one of President Obama’s point men on the climate issue.

Chu has studied the climate science issue for years and talked to many of the leading climate scientists in coming to his conclusions. His full remarks are well worth reading, as a preview of what to come from team Obama and as an extended breath of fresh air after eight long years of high-level Bush Administration denial and muzzling of U.S. climate scientists:

CHU: Carbon dioxide is a global problem. The cost of the carbon emissions are things that, number one, won’t show up immediately in one year, or even in 10 years. They have begun to appear. The real costs are hard to estimate because we don’t know to what extent, how bad it’s going to get, in all honesty. There are projections… You can make a best guess on what might happen. I prefer — there are people who say, since we’re not sure, we really shouldn’t do about it — I think, in my opinion, a more measured way of dealing with this is, it’s all about the risk, the potential risk, the downside risk of not doing something, or maybe doing it in a very moderate way.

The analogy I like to use is, suppose you buy a house, and then in the inspection, the structural engineer says, well, this House is a fine house, but understand, you have to rewire the house, because it’s an old wiring and there’s a chance of an electrical fire. It’s going to cost a lot of money, but you should rewire… So you get an estimate of whether you really need to rewire the house, or whether you can go another, safely for another 20 years or 10 years. Suppose, just pretend, that the next person comes and says, essentially, I think the wiring is shot. I can’t guarantee if it’s going to be this year or five years from now, but you run the risk of an electrical fire. So now you have many options. You can continue to shop for the answer you want: your house is safe. Or you can say, I know the solution…. let’s pretend it’s $20,000, a lot of money, that’s going to come out of your budget, an you can’t – you’re going to have to forgo a lot of other things. You could say, well, I could just get better fire insurance. You’re probably not going to do that. Because there’s a chance the house could burn down when you’re asleep and your kids are asleep in the house. So eventually, you might be led to say, if there’s a 50 percent chance my house might burn down in five years, I better do the rewiring. Then you have to bite the bullet. No one is telling you there’s a 100 percent chance this is going to happen.

We are certainly facing more than a 50% chance our myopic ignorance will burn the house down — a 50% chance that on our current emissions path, we will destroy a livable climate “for 1000 years” (see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”).

So … we certainly are seeing some of the consequences of a changing climate. More and more, it’s coming down very hard on the fact that, it’s caused by humans. And will there be a cost in trying to control carbon emissions? Well yes, like there’s a cost in trying to clean up our sewage. But overall, the benefit to the world will be better. You know, if there’s only five people on the earth, you don’t have to worry about this. But the fact, with the population we have today, the fact is we don’t want to go backward in terms of the prosperity of developed countries, and we see developing countries wanting to do [the same]. We’ve got to figure out a way to use the energy we have more efficiently, and the get newer, cleaner sources. And to get better technical solutions, better technical options…

Hopefully the American public will wake up and support their policymakers who see this is an essential issue. I don’t think the American public has grasped in its gut what could happen. So let me give you one example. It’s local to California.

California’s major part of its water storage system is in the Sierra Mountains. It snows there, and then we have dams, but it’s the snow and the slow melting of the snow and the forests in the watershed area that helps store the water in California. And much of the Central Valley is desert. Los Angeles, San Diego — it’s all desert. Without water — right now, California spends about 20 percent of its electricity moving water. What is being predicted in climate change, there are two bracketed scenarios. The more optimistic one — that we will really control carbon emissions, that we will get a handle on this, and we’re talking the end of this century — even by mid-century, in the optimistic scenario, we will have decreased our snow pack by 20 percent on an average basis. And our forests are going to begin to die, because of parasites and such. At the end of this century, optimistic scenario, you will have decreased [snow pack] by 47 percent. In the pessimistic scenario, the snow pack will decrease by 70 to 90 percent. Well, let me tell you what California does when there’s a two-year in a row 20 percent decrease in snow pack: They water-ration.

Q: So you’re looking at a scenario of permanent water rationing?

CHU: No, you’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. When you lose 70 percent of your water in the mountains, I don’t see how agriculture can continue. California produces 20 percent of the agriculture in the United States. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.

This is not only true of California, this is true for all the Western states. Forests are dying because of parasites. The pine bark beetle is killing pine. British Columbia has already lost 40 percent of its pine … so, when there are no trees, when it rains, the soil doesn’t hold the water… The American public needs to be made aware that this is happening. This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children. If you live in California, any of the Western states, this is going to be very serious. In the Upper Midwest, water shortages, huge water shortages are being predicted. … It goes back to this fire insurance. How do we find the political will? It hopefully has to come from the people of America.

Wow, a Cabinet Secretary talking intelligently about climate-driven pest-destruction of Western forests (see “Even conservative San Diego Union knows climate change is killing Western forests” and “NBC News ignores climate change, blows the bark beetle story“).

Here’s to many, many more interview’s by Obama’s amazing energy and climate team (see “Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010. Here’s how“).


13 Responses to Steven Chu’s full global warming interview: “This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children.”

  1. JeandeBegles says:

    After this clear and rude assessment, what are the policies available?
    When the american public guts will be aware of the reality of this unfolding disaster?
    Everyone must be involved in the solution, starting with the rich people in the rich countries that are the major contributors of these CO2 emissions. This is the very purpose of a strong carbon tax with redistribution on a per capita basis, as proposed by Jim Hansen and others.

  2. Gail says:

    Finally somebody made the link between this disaster and climate change.

    Now can the MSM please make the link to disasters in America? Like the midwest still being out of power from falling trees? The trees are weakened from climate change people!

  3. Joe says:

    Gail — Thanks for that link. I am working on a post on this subject right now.

  4. John McCormick says:


    please indulge my repeating a post made on the Koala post a few days ago. It is relevant to the the extreme climate of Australia.

    Published research by Thompson and Solomon point to tightening of the Antarctic Polar Vortex as a possible explanation for higher temp and lower precip in Southern Australia.

    The following are a few citations you might want to read. Some heavy lifting here but more informative than lifestyle of Koalas, cute as they are.

    [JR: If you read the posts and the comments, you’ll see that there are in fact multiple contributors to what is happening in Australia. The warming of the Indian ocean and human-caused climate change are certainly key drivers.]

    Starts with Australian government publication:

    Australian Greenhouse Office, Department of the Environment and Heritage, April 2005 science/ hottopics/ pubs/ topic9.pdf



    Thompson and Solomon (2002) have shown that stratospheric ozone depletion over Antarctica in spring and early summer is strengthening the westerly winds blowing around Antarctica. (Stratospheric ozone depletion is caused by industrial chemicals such as CFCs.) The effect is greatest during summer and may persist into autumn.

    Cite to the Thompson, Solomon study published in Science: ao/ ThompsonPapers/ ThompsonSolomon_Science.pdf

    “Interpretation of Recent Southern Hemisphere Climate Change”


    David W. J. Thompson1* and Susan Solomon2

    Climate variability in the high-latitude Southern Hemisphere (SH) is dominated by the SH annular mode, a large-scale pattern of variability characterized by fluctuations in the strength of the circumpolar vortex.We present evidence that recent trends in the SH tropospheric circulation can be interpreted as a bias toward the high-index polarity of this pattern, with stronger westerly low encircling the polar cap. It is argued that the largest and most signficant tropospheric trends can be traced to recent trends in the lower stratospheric polar vortex, which are due largely to photochemical ozone losses. During the summer-fall season, the trend toward stronger circumpolar low has contributed substantially to the observed warming over the Antarctic Peninsula and Patagonia and to the cooling over eastern Antarctica and the Antarctic plateau.

    Yes, Virginia, the ozone hole over Antarctica, in 2008, was at a record low and CFCs are not the cause to the degree that compound may have been before the Montreal Protocol. Do some interesting reading and self-education.

    John McCormick

  5. paulm says:

    @Gail, I know I could not believe that this was not raised earlier.

    There is weird weather going down all over the place and people are having an uneasy feeling in the pity of their stomachs.

  6. Brewster says:

    Joe, if you’re doing a “Thing” on the Aussie wildfires, you might want to include a bit on the simultaneous flooding in Queensland – 60% of the state is under water!

    In area, worse than the wildfires, just less people and less spectacular TV footage, so it gets less play…

  7. Roger says:

    Given the climate disruption-driven bushfires going on in Australia, and the many resulting deaths, we should give a sympathetic boost of recognition to the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour, taking place on March 28th.

    This climate change awareness-building event began in Australia a few years ago and has spread around the world–though not yet too much to the U.S. In Earth Hour, from 8:30 to 9:30 PM on the 28th, individuals, towns and cities turn their non-essential light out as a symbol of concern.

    Several major U.S. cites have signed on already, including Chicago, Las Vegas and others. Given what has just come down in Australia, everyone should encourage participation. Info may be found at

  8. Philip Boxell says:

    Cost benefit analysis and risk assessment are two very different analytical tools. It seems to me a mistake to address climate change with cost benefit analysis. Secretary Chu begins his comments and then seems to end on a risk assessment basis. If indeed the viability of the planet is at serious risk (and I firmly believe it is), then Browner and Summers focusing on cap and trade versus economic costs entirely miss the point. Politically, it is a fear with Clinton centrists seizing this issue. I’ve made several points here. But this is not the place to go on, except to that I am very hopeful with appointments such as Secretary Chu.

  9. You can get an even more detailed look at Chu’s views on climate change in an extended interview he gave to the Copenhagen Climate Council in November of last year.

    Here’s the link:

  10. Tim says:

    Hi. I live in Melbourne. I have a very very keen interest both personally (as a human) and via my business, in GW/CC.

    The heat we have been experiencing, unless you live here, is hard to comprehend. I have never in my 30 years experienced it. Neither have my parents. Nor my grandparents.

    That goes for the drought (+12 years and counting). The last GOOD rain I remember was 1994.

    Adelaide heatwave 08 March, 09 Jan/Feb are 1/150,000 year event with no correlation.

    Farmers, usually climate sceptics, are now VERY concerned.

    We have noticed a clear step change in the weather, the climate and so on. Animals are falling out of trees stone dead. Trees, having been through 12 years of drought without doing so, are now dropping their leaves to survive (without much success).

    Make no mistake, things have changed.

    Fires will get way worse.

    The floods in QLD have been well documented as an outcome for Australia as a result of CC. North of Oz to get wetter with more wild storm activity. SE/S to get way hotter and drier. Bye bye alpine areas and snow season.

    Hello increased loss of life, insurance costs etc.

    QLD floods are bad but the fires are way way worse (we’re at 181 dead and counting). People find fire way more terrying. At least you can get in a boat in a flood.


  11. Jim Kornell says:

    I think it’s “Steven,” not “Stephen” — and thanks for the site and for posting Chu’s comments.

  12. Everyone knows all this facts mentioned in the interview. But the thing to be taken in consideration should be how to tackle it?? What can we do for survival??