"When I was in China, we signed an agreement that we were going to be cooperating on three areas in particular: Building efficiency, transportation — more efficient vehicles and electrification of vehicles — and finally, cooperating on how we can learn to use coal in a clean way, including the capture and storage of carbon dioxide."
—Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Click through for a transcript of this interview.
Katherine Lanpher for The Takeaway: If you want to know what Energy Secretary Steven Chu is up to, check out his Facebook page, where he has gathered more than 3,000 fans who can keep up with his recent appearance on the Daily Show and his thoughts on which feedstock grasses could be the future of biofuel. Those are his status updates, then there’s his mandate from President Obama.
Tape of President Barack Obama: The nation that leads in 21st century clean energy, is the nation that will lead the 21st century global economy.
Katherine Lanpher: The president linking the environment and the economy, the pressure is on for Chu, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, to make climate change a major priority, both here at home and across the world. He recently came back from a visit to China, where he talked to officials there about greenhouse gases. Secretary Chu, thanks for joining us. There’s a lot of attention right now on the votes for health care reform, but when we look at the energy and climate legislation, the Senate Democrats are really short of votes there. So how worried are you that an energy bill is going to get lost in the shuffle of the health care debate.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu: Well I hope it’s not going to get lost. I think both bills are incredibly important, and as the President has said, and this I believe deeply in my roots, is that in the future — 10 years from now, 20 years from now — oil prices will be higher. In the future we will be living in a carbon-constrained economy. It’s become more and more apparent the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. And so the United States says, we have the opportunity to say, “This is the way it’s gonna be 10 and 20 years from now.” We can say that this is highly likely and position ourselves so that we can take advantage of what ultimately will be another industrial revolution to produce energy cleanly and use it in the wisest way possible. Or we can try to pretend this is 1950 and let other countries take the lead.
Katherine Lanpher: How much of a difference is this bill actually going to make?
Steven Chu: I think at its core, the fact that it says we have use our energy more efficiently, we have to start to say we have to limit our carbon emissions, we have to ratchet down the carbon emissions. At its core, if you say just that signal, that yes, there are allowances that will help the U.S. and different regions transition, but in the end we’re going to have to do this. Just sending that signal to the private sector and to industry and to the average U.S. citizen actually will do a remarkable amount. Because once that signal is established, the scientists and engineers say, “We have to do something about it. This is a long-term signal. Let’s start thinking about it today.”
Katherine Lanpher: You also, of course, are trying to send signals around the world. You were just in China, but there’s a new Senate report that’s talking about high level meetings next week with both Chinese and American officials. And the Senate report says they better be talking about climate change. So I want to know, are we going to be seeing a Facebook status update that says you’re sitting down with your counterparts in China again?
Steven Chu: Yes. In fact, this meeting will be led by Secretary Clinton, Secretary Geithner, but I’ll be participating in this meeting. This is a strategic and economic dialogue and climate change is on the agenda. In my trip to China, every high-ranking official that I met talked about climate change, the devastating impact it would have on China and the rest of the world, if aggressive action weren’t taken. And China is acting aggressively in all sectors — energy efficiency, clean energy, all these things. In fact, they view this as an economic opportunity as well.
Katherine Lanpher: There’s a House bill on the environment that would put a tariff on countries that don’t tow the line on greenhouse gases by 2020. How’s that going to have an impact on your talks next week?
Steven Chu: Well, I think that’s a much more difficult situation and mostly what I want to do in my position as Secretary of Energy is to say to China, and develop ways that we can cooperate. What is not realized is the Department of Energy is, in large part, a research and development organizations. We supply funds that allow people in universities, national labs and companies to develop new technologies. And we also have funds to help get out there the technologies we do have but haven’t been deployed. We, when I was in China, we signed an agreement that we were going to be cooperating on three areas in particular: Building efficiency, transportation — more efficient vehicles and electrification of vehicles — and finally, cooperating on how we can learn to use coal in a clean way, including the capture and storage of carbon dioxide.
Katherine Lanpher: When you were in China, you got them to agree to put up $15 million in research for clean energy. Secretary of the State Clinton has been in India, she’s not getting very far on the climate question there. So when you all sit down next week, what sort of pointers are you going to give her on how to get people to cough up money for research?
Steven Chu: I’m not going to give the Secretary…she’s a very capable woman. What China and we agreed upon is each country will be putting up $7.5 million, for a total of $15 million, so that we could do research in these areas in mutual cooperation. The most important thing is that both countries recognize that if we cooperate we can get there a lot faster. And this is not about intellectual property transfers, this is about saying we have some common goals if we work together. For example, in China, there is going to be tremendous amount of building that has to go on in China as they’re country shifts from a rural economy to an urban economy, and urban dwellings. They themselves estimate that roughly 300 million new people will have to be housed, and the infrastructure of the cities of 300 million people in the next 15 years. That’s one United States.
Katherine Lanpher: I have to say, the argument that you here from both China and India is, “Hey! We’re still growing. You’ve already hit prosperity so don’t try to shackle us when you’re sitting in a position of prosperity.” So how do you counter that argument?
Steven Chu: Well, let me just talk about China. The issue is that, yes, they are still a developing country. Yes, the United States on a per capita basis is putting out more carbon, consuming more energy. And, yes, so they say we have differentiated responsibilities. But China is recognizing that we have to all be in this together. And, yes, we’re wealthier, we’ve been putting out more carbon emissions. But without China, and without the U.S., shoulder to shoulder saying this is a big deal, this is a real problem, without those two countries that now emit 42 percent of the carbon dioxide of the world, we’re not going to be going forward. So China recognizes, and this is the most important thing, China recognizes that if we go unabated, if we go as business as usual, the consequences of climate change to their people and to their country would be very bad. They would also be very bad for the United States. So let’s take a more positive attitude. By the way, this is an economic opportunity. We, as I said before, we need a new industrial revolution. So energy becomes high technology, and this is where we’re great. We have the greatest R&D program in the world, we have the greatest ability to innovate in the world, and if the United States says this is where the new wealth creation will be, this is where we re-capture high-quality high-tech manufacturing, this is our future and, by the way, it’s also going to save the world.
Katherine Lanpher: Well that’s a great way to sell an idea. One idea that isn’t going over so well all the time is the cap and trade system that’s being talked about in Congress right now. James Hanson, one of the scientists, one of the first ones to warn the world about climate change has said that the cap and trade system being talked about in Congress right now is a sham. What do you think?
Steven Chu: I respect Jim a lot. But I have to say that it has some real advantages. There are some things that we have to be very careful about. I think in the trading part, it’s very important that we have very open transparent margins, that we work very hard so people can’t manipulate them. But it does have some significant advantages. But mostly, and I again go back to this, it puts a cap on carbon and it tells the United States and the world we’re going to ratchet down that cap. Once you start that going, just as has happened in capping sulpher dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from our power plants, and engineers start working on this, the costs become far less. Historically, when the clean air act was passed by Bush I, there were estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency saying “This is how much we think it’ll cost.” When it was first started, it was factored to less than what the EPA was estimating, even though they were clearly not trying to over-inflate the cost. And now it’s four to five times cheaper than the original estimates. So capturing carbon dioxide: Is it harder? I admit, it is harder. But the incentives are there and I think we can do the same.
Katherine Lanpher: I would like your 90-second pitch on just how eminent the boiling point is with our climate.
Steven Chu: This is something that’s, 90 seconds, how eminent it is, the worst effects of what we’ve done today won’t be felt for 100 years. It’s very hard for the American public to understand this. If we continue doing what we’re doing, many climate models are saying there’s a 50/50 chance, if we continue as business as usual, we will be four to six degrees warmer, Celcius. That doesn’t sound like much. Let me remind you, where we are today, where we were in the ice age, it was only five to six degrees Centigrade colder. Very different world. Canada, United States down in Ohio to Pennsylvania, covered year-round in ice. A world four to six degrees Centigrade warmer will also be a very, very different world.
Katherine Lanpher: Secretary Chu, I want to thank you for joining us today.
Steven Chu: Thank you.