Scientists and environmentalists rejoiced on Jan. 20 when the U.S. Senate confirmed physicist Dr. Steven Chu as Energy Secretary. After eight years of climate change denial and minimal efforts to provide incentives for renewable energy development, the U.S. government made a dramatic shift with Chu’s confirmation. Chu has been a fierce advocate for research in alternative sources of energy as well as for action on the global warming crisis. His work at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, such as the Helios project to store solar energy, and his interest in creative solutions, such as tapping termite guts for biomass energy, shows his dedication to finding solutions to our dependence on fossil fuels. However, Chu does not work for himself anymore. Chu works for President Barack Obama and is accountable to the American people. One can only hope that Chu will continue to be an outspoken advocate for environmentally friendly energy, even as he collides with politics.

In the past, Chu has been very candid about global warming. ‘We’ll cook ourselves before we run out of energy,” Chu was quoted by the Campus Times during Meliora Weekend 2006. He has also been quoted saying, ‘Coal is my worst nightmare.” Environmentalists might nod their heads in agreement with these two statements, but realistic Americans who look at their ever-increasing energy bills or workers who rely on gas for transportation want one thing from an energy secretary: cheap energy.

In the current economic climate, spending a significant portion of one’s paycheck on the heating bill can be disastrous. As gas prices steadily climbed during the summer, more Americans resorted to public transportation. Although the number of cars on the road decreased, many large U.S. cities are choosing to make cuts to their subway and bus lines. How can one argue with a single parent who relies on cheap gas to drive to work in order to feed his or her kids and provide heat for the home? Chu has realized the conundrum alternative energy faces with the downturn in the economy and increasing demand from Americans. But he should not take pleas to ‘drill, baby drill” to heart because not only would offshore drilling take years to produce fuel, the consequence would be an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to Chu’s and the Earth’s worst nightmare.

Some worry that Chu has already started to make concessions to the oil and gas industry. He has not opposed increased oil and gas drilling. He supports ‘clean coal” research, although there seem to be more drawbacks than benefits to carbon storage. During the Senate hearing, Chu stated, ‘We need all of the solutions.” The hero of climate change advocates just lost some standing by revising his scientific and personal views to accept fossil fuels. Nobody in Washington is immune to partisanship. Welcome to politics, Dr. Chu.

In the next four years, the new energy secretary will have to make some difficult decisions. He will have to decide if short-term economic stability is worth long-term catastrophic changes. He will have to learn to balance his beliefs with those of the desperate average American. One must hope that Chu was only trying to soften his image as a radical fossil-fuel hater during the confirmation hearing to be accepted by the Senate. Now that he has secured the position of Energy Secretary, he has the freedom to take the U.S. energy economy to a more sustainable future. Yet Chu must also be careful not to fall into the pit of unnecessary compromise that Obama has started to dig. Chu must be an educator. He must explain to the average American that drilling now will not solve anything in the immediate future. Instinctive, whimsical and misinformed calls to ‘drill, baby drill” will hopefully disappear under Obama’s administration. Politicians who support the oil and gas industry will hopefully not make a mark on future policy. Belief in science must return to the White House, as well as trust to those who have studied energy solutions as careers. We have faith in you, Dr. Chu. Follow your beliefs and lead the United States and the world to a greener economy.

Written on behalf of Grassroots.

Coughlan is a member of
the class of 2011.

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