The First Secretary of Climate Change

Steven Chu, the new U.S. secretary of energy, is a Nobel-winning physicist and an unabashed advocate of fighting climate change. But can he negotiate the political realities of transforming the energy economy?
Steven Chu may be more responsible for the ultimate success or failure of the Obama administration's climate-change goals than anyone but the president himself Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For years, Steven Chu argued that leadership on climate change should be wrested from the politicians and turned over to the scientists. But on Capitol Hill this April, on Earth Day, as Chu testified on the scientific merits of the most ambitious climate-change bill ever to come out of Washington, you might have wondered whether he regretted getting his wish.

The opposition attacked immediately. Representative Fred Upton of Michigan suggested that a greenhouse-gas “cap and tax” bill would lead to the loss of American jobs. Lee Terry of Nebraska asked some amusing questions about regulating methane emissions (produced in high volume by the cattle industry in his home state) and wondered if the bill’s emission standards met “the administration’s goal of bankrupting coal plants.” John Shimkus of Illinois shook a few props he’d brought — a hard hat and a piece of coal — and called the bill “the largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country that I’ve ever experienced.” Michael Burgess of Texas asked for proof linking human activity to the rise in greenhouse gases. That’s when the scientist took control of the debate. He politely told Burgess that he’d be happy to explain the connection in private. It sounded as if the congressman, having fallen behind everyone else in the room in his understanding of the matter at hand, had been asked to stay after class for extra help.

Before his appointment in January as secretary of energy, Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning quantum physicist most recently in charge of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was more accustomed to giving lectures on the laser cooling of atoms than patiently smiling through a barrage of grandstanding. Chu had better get used to it, though, because the political challenges he will face as President Obama’s energy secretary are unprecedented. Like the career executives and military officers who held the post before him, he is still responsible for the the job’s standard, massive managerial chores: maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and oil reserves, running a 16,000-employee bureaucracy, funding research at the country’s national laboratories. Chu’s immediate predecessor, Samuel Bodman, insisted that emissions targets were a bad idea and that global warming would be solved by future technologies. Chu has been much more proactive. His biggest task in his new job is to help enact the Obama administration’s sweeping goals for transforming America’s energy economy, to turn the country responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions into a model for low-carbon sustainability. Chu accepted the position of secretary of energy; his successor will almost certainly be the second secretary of climate change.

At the Earth Day hearing, Chu’s primary responsibility was defending climate-change action of the kind proposed in the Waxman-Markey Bill, a.k.a. the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which sets strict greenhouse-gas reduction targets — reducing them to 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2050 — and creates the framework for a national greenhouse-gas cap-and-trade system. Meeting these targets would require an average annual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions of about 4 percent nationwide starting next year.

The larger goal behind this and other initiatives is to stimulate nothing less than what Chu has called “a second industrial revolution.” The aggressive timetable for reductions in emission levels that Chu and Obama would like to see enacted will inevitably rearrange the list of winners and losers in American business, and that’s where Chu will run into trouble. Opposition to this project has been coming from both Republicans and moderate Democrats, especially those from coal-rich states, who are worried about its economic impact in their districts. Overcoming that opposition will require all the persuasion Chu and his colleagues — including Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation — can muster.

Chu’s performance that day on Capitol Hill boded well for his chances. During the hearing, his colleagues often yielded the floor to him, especially on scientific matters. This obviously didn’t stop all the political showboating. But often, when Chu took the lead, something very un-Washington happened: The tone of the discussion shifted from divisive debate to studious consideration of a scientific challenge. Maybe it’s just the natural deference that anyone, Republican or Democrat, feels the need to show a Nobel laureate. But in Washington, every advantange helps.

Chu, 61, is the second of three boys born to native Chinese parents who immigrated to the U.S. to pursue advanced studies at MIT. He says education was the family’s highest purpose, and the Chu brothers have seven advanced degrees among them, from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkeley and UCLA.

Chu speaks precisely, with few hesitations or mid-course corrections, and he doesn’t slow down for, say, thorny concepts from quantum mechanics. Listening to his lectures is the intellectual equivalent of hitting with a tennis pro: Even when he’s making it easy for you, it’s still as fast as you can handle, maybe faster.

The appointment of this caliber of science brainiac to a cabinet-level position is certainly the clearest manifestation of the new embrace of the sciences at the federal level. The Obama administration has given Chu hefty funding to work with, too. Sure, the $26.3 billion budgeted for the DOE next year represents only a modest 5 percent increase over Bush-era allotments. But Chu has also been handed $39 billion in stimulus funds — a cumulative increase to department coffers of more than 250 percent. In one of his first acts, the new secretary announced $1.2 billion headed to research and construction projects at national labs like Lawrence Berkeley.

Chu maintains that in the mid- to long term, it will take technological breakthroughs, not just rapid implementation of existing technology, to address climate change. It is “a problem that science and technology really have to solve,” he says. “There are so many things we can do today, especially on the energy-efficiency side, but in order to get us where we really need to go — to better than an 80 or 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions, all while still having the developing world enjoy an even higher standard of living — we really need to have better choices.”

Chu took the job with strong opinions about which choices deserve serious consideration, and he’s begun to make those preferences clear through budgeting decisions. In early May, for example, he announced $786.5 million in funding intended to increase fundamental research in advanced biofuels. A few days later, in contrast, he slashed $100 million from automotive hydrogen-fuel-cell research. Explaining his decision, he gave a withering assessment of the prospects for hydrogen cars, saying that he wanted to invest in programs that “will actually get us on a lower carbon-emissions path.”

Among Chu’s admirers, any hesitation about his prospects in the DOE derives from the magnitude of the job he faces. Part of this is his fault; no one has been more articulate about those challenges than Chu himself. In public lectures for the past four and a half years, he used his platform at Lawrence Berkeley to lay out the scientific evidence behind global warming. In a notable lab lecture, he once connected the “not-so-hidden costs of our present energy diet” with national security and ongoing economic prosperity. “For this reason, it’s arguable — not only arguable but obvious, at least to me,” he said, “that getting sustainable CO2-neutral energy is the most important technological or scientific challenge we face today.”

Chu’s pre-DOE curriculum vitae is filled with accounts of solving borderline-unsolvable scientific problems. Like all Nobel Prize winners, Chu wrote an autobiographical essay when he received the award that traces his history. This portrait of the scientist as a young man follows his growth from a Long Island boyhood spent tinkering with an erector set on a living-room floor, through the decades he dedicated to figuring out a method of cooling atoms so much (specifically, to 240 millionths of a degree above absolute zero) that they could be trapped, observed, and put to work. He was instrumental in creating a six-beam laser trap, from which atoms cannot escape and inside of which they lose so much energy that atoms, which at room temperature move at essentially unobservable speeds, slow to centimeters per second. The discovery has had all manner of applications, including improving the accuracy of the atomic clock maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology by more than tenfold.

As a graduate student in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, Chu quickly attracted the attention of Eugene Commins, who was teaching one of the required courses. “Steve asked me very early on whether I could take him on as a research student,” Commins says. “He was clearly the best student in the class. At first I was embarrassed, because I didn’t really have a good problem for him to work on.” Eventually the two settled on an experiment designed to test a piece of the then-new Standard Model of particle physics by looking for evidence of interactions between electrons and quarks.

According to Commins, Chu is a crackerjack experimentalist with a knack for improvising. While they were working on their project, the two realized that it would call for a state-of-the-art laser, something Commins knew little about. Chu confidently assured his adviser that he would build one himself. And he did, using cheap and borrowed parts in the student machine shop until he emerged with something called a flash-lamp-pumped pulsed-dye laser with a cylindrical double-ellipse cavity. Their experiment caused a stir. In his Nobel essay, Chu says that “the work was tremendously exciting and the world was definitely watching us.”

Unfortunately, just a few months before they published their results, a research team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center beat them to it, demonstrating exactly what Chu and Commins were hoping to discover. Still, it did not escape the folks at Bell Laboratories that Chu and Commins, using a tabletop apparatus, had very nearly scooped a rival team that was working on one of the most advanced pieces of scientific apparatus on earth, and in 1983 Bell made Chu the head of its quantum-electronics research department, in Holmdel, New Jersey.

There he began his investigations into cooling atoms. Physicist William Phillips of the National Insitute of Standards and Technology had met Chu at several conferences and kept track of his progress from afar, and he remembers chatting with him at a conference lunch break about the potential of laser cooling to grab a neutral (non-ion) atom. Then began a friendly rivalry. Phillips and his colleagues worked out their breakthroughs at NIST. Another physicist, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, contributed experiments from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Chu made his discoveries at Bell Labs and later at Stanford University. His eureka moment came during a heavy New Jersey snowstorm. Everybody had left the lab except him (a rarity at Bell, where people tended to stick around and talk science at all hours), and he suddenly realized that instead of grabbing an atom and then cooling it down, you could cool the atom and then grab it. In 1997 all three men shared the Nobel Prize in Physics.

For Chu, working with the laws of nature may turn out to be easier than testing the limits of Washington red tape. A week after the Earth Day debate on Capitol Hill, the cap-and-trade legislation was already in trouble. Representative Henry Waxman of California, the lead author of the bill, stalled its movement because of continued uncertainties about costs, both to industry and consumers. Committee members in both parties had to decide which industries would be granted free carbon credits (and for how long), a measure that would help companies to subsidize efforts to develop cleaner technologies. And projections about the economic impact of the bill vary wildly. Official EPA estimates put average annual cost per household from higher energy prices at $98 to $140; estimates commissioned by an industry group put the average cost per household at $1,000 in 2015, and $1,400 in 2020.

Reforms this sweeping inevitably come with mistakes, such as the one that Representative Greg Walden of Oregon brought to Chu’s attention before the House Energy Committee: the narrow definition of “qualified hydropower.” One of the biggest impediments to the growth of wind power is the difficulty of storing the power it generates. Using wind power to pump water to a higher elevation, where it can be released and run through a turbine when extra electricity is needed, offers a simple solution. But the Waxman-Markey bill, as written, seemed to make pump storage, in such a circumstance, illegal.

Walden took the opportunity to embarrass Chu; the sticky definition came up on a page of the bill that the secretary admitted he hadn’t read. It was a small moment — Chu was contrite, and Walden didn’t stop to gloat — but it revealed a larger concern. If Chu hopes to succeed in Washington and forge a consensus for his agenda, he needs both to maneuver around accidents like these and to win the vote of people like Walden, pro-business types who are often skeptical of government regulation.

Chu has a regulation success story ready to appease these concerns. Starting in the 1970s, engineers, faced with the mere threat of regulation, quickly redesigned the refrigerator to be more efficient. “I cannot emphasize how important this was,” Chu said in response to a question from Representative Jane Harman of California. “If you look at the energy saved today — we have roughly 150 million refrigerators. And the energy we’re saving today relative to 1974 standards is actually more than all of the wind and solar energy we’re now producing in the United States, just from refrigerators alone.”

No eureka moment led Chu to decide to confront climate change so directly. “This actually came gradually,” he says. “Maybe six or seven years ago, I got concerned about the energy problem. As I started to read more and more, I came to realize this could be really serious.” At the time, he was still a professor at Stanford. At physics conferences, in addition to his laser-cooling talks, he began to offer a lecture on energy. He joined the board of the Hewlett Foundation, a nonprofit organization that was deeply involved in environmental issues, and he met many “like-minded souls,” he says. In 2004, his former boss back at Bell, then head of Lawrence Berkeley, was moving on and urged Chu to at least interview for the position. It may have seemed like a leap, but the duties at Lawrence Berkeley would really be a shift in scale and not in type from his job at Bell. “My first answer was no,” Chu says. “I didn’t have aspirations to be a big bureaucrat.” But soon he had second thoughts. “If I really was interested in doing something about climate change, this would be a good platform. If I could get some of the best scientists to Lawrence Berkeley and get them to shift their interest, it might have some impact.” Lawrence Berkeley offered him the job the afternoon he interviewed.

Turning Lawrence Berkeley into a mecca for climate-change research might have been overreaching, but Chu had a lot to offer the scientists he sought to attract, including the facilities of one of the nation’s largest research labs and freedom from the academic infighting often found in smaller university physics departments. At Lawrence Berkeley, Chu succeeded in starting many of the blue-sky programs he hopes will lead to genuine breakthroughs. One Lawrence Berkeley team is working on automated demand response, a feature of a new, “smart” electric grid that will help lower energy use at peak hours. Another wants to genetically alter plant species like switchgrass and miscanthus for use as biofuels. Yet another is bioengineering synthetic microbes to break down cellulose in wild grasses or poplar trees, to make a gasoline substitute that’s greener than corn-based ethanols.

Chu is fond of pointing out the times that science has averted global disaster in the past. He frequently cites the work of fellow Nobelists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, who found a means of fixing nitrogen for use in fertilizer, and Norman Borlaug, who developed high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of wheat; their work transformed agriculture and saved millions of lives by preventing famine. Chu deeply believes that science and technology can and must perform a similar service today. “The first [industrial revolution] allowed us to transition from muscle power, humans and animals, to using carbon-based fuels,” he says. “The unintended consequences were direct air pollution — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, smog. And we used science to clean that up. This is a much more serious problem: namely, how do we get our energy in a much more carbon-free manner?

“I’m an optimist. It will happen,” he says. And then he adds a note that’s as close as the optimist comes to dire warning. “But if we just continue doing things the way we do them today… Well, we don’t have that much time. Let’s put it that way.”