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Energy Secretary Steven Chu issues dire warning on global warming

Feb 3, 2009 - Jim Tankersley - Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — The Upper Midwest and West could face water shortages and California's major cities could be in jeopardy if Americans do not act to slow the advance of global warming, Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu said Tuesday.

He warned of particularly dire consequences for his home state of California, the nation's leading agricultural producer, saying the state's farms and vineyards could vanish by the end of the century. In a worst case, Chu said, up to 90 percent of the snow pack could disappear in the Sierras, sucking the bulk of California's water supply nearly dry.

In his first interview since taking office last month, Chu offered some of the starkest comments yet on how seriously President Barack Obama's Cabinet views the threat of climate change, along with a detailed assessment of the administration's plans to combat it.

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he said. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California." And, he added, "I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going" either.

A pair of recent studies complement his argument. One, published in January in the journal Science, raised the specter of worldwide crop shortages as temperatures rise. Another, penned by University of California Berkeley researchers last year, estimated California has some $2.5 trillion in real estate assets — including agriculture — endangered by warming.

Chu won the Nobel for his work trapping atoms with laser light. He taught at Stanford University and directed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he reoriented researchers to pursue "clean energy" technologies before Obama tapped him to head the Energy Department.

He stressed the threat of climate change in his Senate confirmation hearings, but not as bluntly as he did Tuesday.

In the course of a half-hour interview, Chu made clear that he sees public education as a key part of the administration's strategy to fight global warming—along with billions for alternative energy research and infrastructure in the economic stimulus package being debated in the Senate, plans to push for a national standard for electricity from renewable sources and a so-called "cap-and-trade" bill to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

Chu said the threat of warming is keeping policymakers focused on fossil-fuel alternatives, even though gasoline prices fell over the past six months from historic highs. But he said public awareness needs to catch up. He compared the situation to a family buying an old house and being told by an inspector that it must pay a hefty sum to rewire it, or risk an electrical fire that could burn everything.

"I'm hoping that the American people will wake up," Chu said, and pay the cost of rewiring.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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