Friday, February 13, 2009

Chu Back to Speaking His Mind

It's great to see Nobel Prize winning physicist and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu back to speaking his mind. Here from an interview in the L.A. Times he discusses the effects of reduced snow-pack on California.

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.

You may have noticed that during his confirmation hearing he walked back an earlier comment that coal was his "nightmare", describing it only as a bad dream, (NYTimes) but maybe one only needs to be circumspect in front of the Senate committee?

In the L.A. Times interview Chu presents the case for action against climate change despite uncertainties in our knowledge. He has a particularly good analogy to the dangers of old electrical wiring.

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.

Finally this

Dr. Chu said he was still adjusting to his surroundings and title after most of a career spent as an academic scientist. Asked whether he preferred to be called “Dr. Chu” or “Mr. Secretary,” he answered, “Steve is fine.”

Given what I have heard about the workrate Chu expects, I wonder if some at the Department of Energy will be in for a period adjustment also.

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