Chu On Climate: ‘If We Don’t Change What We’re Doing, We’re Going To Be Fundamentally In Really Deep Trouble’

Dr. Ernest Moniz was sworn in as the new Energy Secretary this week. Last week, the previous Secretary, Dr. Steven Chu, gave an interview to Stanford where he is returning as a physics professor.

The Nobel laureate was asked “What’s the No. 1 problem on your list?” His answer:

Climate change. We’re heading into an era where if we don’t change what we’re doing, we’re going to be fundamentally in really deep trouble. We’re already in trouble. So we have to transition to better solutions.

We’re not too far away from producing a lot of renewable energy, and doing it cheaply. Solar power is going to become cheaper and cheaper – costs have plummeted three-fold in six years, partly because of the dropping price of modules and electronics. Wind energy is within 15 percent of the cost of new natural gas energy, and the DOE predicts that that cost will cross over within one or two decades, so we need to start to plan the transition system that can conduct more wind energy.

But right now, we’re not prepared. As technology continues to race forward – battery technology has advanced faster in the past five years than what I’ve seen in the [previous] 15 years – we need policy to guide and anticipate development. It takes decades to change things like infrastructure, and so people have to think about that today. Otherwise, progress slows down, and we emit more carbon and get into more trouble environmentally.

Back in 2009, Chu said “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

Chu did keep talking about climate change in the past 4 years, but neither the media nor the White House were paying much attention. And so we are “already in trouble” with much, much worse to come if we don’t act now.

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25 Responses to Chu On Climate: ‘If We Don’t Change What We’re Doing, We’re Going To Be Fundamentally In Really Deep Trouble’

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Steven, we appreciate your speaking out here, but were frankly disappointed in your performance at Energy. Your deep knowledge of the hazards we face was not matched by public statements during your tenure. Moniz will be far worse, but during the first Obama Administration you were fine with the All of the Above strategy, which is defeatist and ensures business as usual.

    I also have a problem with the notion that it will take decades to transform our energy system. If that’s the case, we’ll soldier on with 15 tons of CO2 per capita in the medium term, which is not only deadly, it will enable fossil fuel interests in other countries. Our standard of living is worse than Europeans’, who have half our emissions.

    It’s a myth that transformation would take decades, and a rapid switch to clean energy would be enabled by stiff and rising carbon taxes. Let the utilities and fossil fuel companies take a beating as their investments shrink in value. Or are investment banks and wealthy stockholders the ones who are really in charge of our energy policy?

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Oh My Gosh!

    How can I explain how bothered I am about this latest pronouncement/warning by Dr. Chu. When I heard years ago that the then-new President Obama had appointed Dr. Chu, I celebrated: finally (I thought) a president who was serious about climate change, and an excellent and vocal scientist as Energy Secretary who would guide, prompt, and help him do it.

    What happened? Given the stakes involved, and the time lost, there are really no valid and justifiable excuses.

    But we can begin doing things differently, starting today. As one example, if Dr. Chu is at Stanford now, he can go and partner with Paul Ehrlich — why not today? Then, the two of them should gather up other concerned faculty and students and promptly march over to the office of Michael J. Boskin, the longest-acting Director on ExxonMobil’s Board, also at Stanford. They can seek/demand change at Exxon or else for Mr. Boskin to resign from Stanford. Does that seem too pushy or uncomfortable, contrary to some human/academic-defined norm of some sort? Well, consider the stakes.

    So, my vote is for this: Dr. Chu and Paul Ehrlich (who I deeply admire) should approach, appeal to, and ultimately (if necessary) confront Michael Boskin as well as Stanford’s leadership. They should bring along Paul Kennedy too. (Do it in honor of Stephen [spelling?] Schneider!) I’d like to be on that mission too.

    I hope that Dr. Chu realizes that he had four whole years to be much more outspoken, much more insistent, much more pushy (including and especially with the President) than he apparently was. Those were largely four lost years — the opportunity cost incalculable!



  3. Thorn says:

    The problem as I see it, is that we can’t “act now”. If there were any large-scale climate change addressing policies for congress to enact in the near term, they typically are not phased in for at least a few years. To add to the challenge, any cuts we make now (which need to be deep, and more deep the more we delay), will not have any ‘payoff’ until this generation is well past. Sad situation,

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    Lots of people say the right thing on the way out the door. Did they do the opposite when they were in power? That’s a problem.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    Correction: I meant Don Kennedy (former president of Stanford), not Paul Kennedy. Sorry for the mistake.

  6. paul magnus says:

    We have probably passed the point of no return….

  7. paul magnus says:


    In the last year, scientists discovered a climate record going back over 3 million years – long beyond the ice core records of 800,000 years. Research led by Professor Julie Brigham-Grette, from the University of Masschusetts, Amherst drastically changes our understanding of the world.

  8. Sasparilla says:

    A very nice article Joe.

    After Holdren, I always thought Chu was the best guy we had in the administration (still having to do what the President wanted of course)…sad to see him out of there.

    Anyone else sick of having to look at these trashy Taboola ads? They could be much worse of course, but they reflect poorly on Climate Progress’s mission and content.

  9. Lou Grinzo says:

    And this is probably the biggest single challenge in climate communication: Getting people to understand how many ways and to what extent we’re on the wrong end of timing. Long CO2 atmospheric lifetime (as I say in presentations, “love is fleeting but CO2 is forever”), plus the additional lock-in effects of physical infrastructure, social convention, politics, economics, etc., all tell us that the situation is extremely urgent and becoming more so with every passing day and new fossil fueled power plant or new pipeline we build.

    It’s like being in burning building full of people who can’t see the flames, smell the smoke, or feel the rising heat. Instead of taking action, we’ve chosen to sit back and wait until the screams of other people are loud enough to wake us up.

  10. PeterM says:

    we are going to be in ‘deep trouble’ ? We already are.

  11. BobbyL says:

    After suffering through eight very long years of George W. Bush (thanks a lot all you voters in Florida who voted for the smartest man in America who can’t tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican, Ralph Nader; and those who didn’t take the time to study the butterfly ballot which my mother studied very well before voting and had no trouble with; and those who for whatever reason left hanging chads; and of course the U.S. Supreme Court members who had no business getting involved)probably my biggest disappointment after Obama selected Steven Chu and John Holdren to join his administration was that they were apparently muzzled against really speaking out in the press about the threat of global warming during most of Obama’s first term. If there was a greater disappointment it was that Obama muzzled himself.

  12. Joe Romm says:

    He no doubt could have done more, but the White House was simply not interested.

  13. Bart Flaster says:

    Can’t see them with Firefox + Ad Block. Prevents You Tube ads and ads before news clips on CNN. Bye-Bye ads.

  14. Oggy says:

    (thanks a lot all you voters in Florida who voted for the smartest man in America who can’t tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican, Ralph Nader)

    Nader can tell the difference between a lot more than political parties. I always feel the Democrats steal votes from Nader, not the other way around. And N. Chomsky is the smartest man in America which is why I write his name in every election.

  15. Ed Leaver says:

    Relax. The president got re-elected. Given the alternative, doesn’t his team deserve at least partial credit?

  16. Sasparilla says:

    Thanks Bart will add it on.

  17. Sasparilla says:

    Well said Oggy, way, way more registered Democrats voted for George Bush in that horrible Florida primary than voted for Nader.

  18. Sasparilla says:

    Ahh, so much better…thank you.

  19. Ernest says:

    What I’m afraid of is even if renewable energy were as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuel right now, it will still take a long time to make the transition. LED bulbs are just starting to be viable economically. CFL bulbs have been all the while, and yet the GOP wants to make war on this. And this is with technology you can just screw in and out.

    Think of the challenge of making our grid smart, building out new transmission lines when the Federal government can’t even fix it’s broken bridges and roads, replacing all the gasoline automobiles on the road, shutting down coal mines, phasing out gas plants except for those few “peaking plants”, and you get the enormity of task ahead of us. Chu is right. Even if the technology is there, implementation and deployment is a huge challenge in itself given the “lock in” of the current infrastructure and current way of doing things. We need to start lining up the ducks and thinking how to do this.

  20. Steve O says:

    How can costs plummet three-fold? If they plummet one-fold aren’t they already at zero?

    I suspect he meant they have plummeted 67%, but one would hope a scientist would get this kind of thing right.

  21. Now he tells us.

    I wish he had said this when he first began, and resigned if he got heat. He had a job to go back to, so that wasn’t an issue.

    I suppose, as a representative of the President and the Democratic Party, he was concerned about a backlash. But really, how much worse can it get?

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    For what? For getting Obama re-elected for four more years of planned inaction on climate destabilisation?

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And there was the cleansing of the electoral rolls by the state Reptilicans.

  24. Sasparilla says:

    Well said Mulga.

  25. Dave S. Nottear says:

    I think you are right Joe- but still, in that case he could have resigned his position in protest.

    I like Jeff Huggins’ idea – but Chu could also consider resigning from Stanford and taking a position at a Major University that is already in the process of divesting in fossil fuels. If none exists, then Chu could just resign from public.

    And the rest of us can follow his example.

    A very mild inconvenience considering the consequences.