Secretary of Energy Steven Chu a Nobel laureate and 1970 UR alumnus and trustee made an urgent case to the Meliora Weekend crowd on Saturday about the consequences of climate change if the United States were to continue ‘business as usual.”
He called for a proactive U.S. to lead the world in redressing human impact on global temperatures since the 19th century, citing the Obama administration’s push for progress in renewable energy technology.
‘The United States has an opportunity to lead the world in an industrial revolution,” Chu said. ‘We need a new industrial revolution… We want an industrial revolution that’s a cleaner industrial revolution.”
Delivering the weekend’s keynote speech to the Palestra audience and armed with a PowerPoint of charts and graphs, Chu countered global warming skeptics with modern evidence of rising temperatures compared to 420,000 years of data.
‘Every person is entitled to their own opinions and they can certainly have the right to think whatever they want, but they’re not entitled to their own facts,” he said to resounding applause.
Among the many images that Chu conjured of Earth’s possible future were submerged areas of the U.S. (like parts of southern Florida) and collapsed Alaskan houses due to melting glaciers.
He asked the audience to imagine a world the complete opposite from the last ice age. In the ice age, the world was six to seven degrees Celsius lower than average temperatures today and the effect was glaciers covering northern U.S. and Canada. The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change predicts there’s 50 percent chance world temperature will rise over five degrees Celsius within a century.
‘That means there’s a 50 percent chance we will go to an equally different world,” Chu said.
After laying out the stakes and realities of global warming, Chu shifted his tone to one of opportunism, highlighting what can be done within homes, scientific communities and the government to help avert this future. Quoting former NHL player Wayne Gretsky, he asked the United States to ‘skate where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.”
Chu illustrated how simple steps toward more energy and insulation efficiency reap big benefits. Refrigerator insulation has become so developed that refrigerators now require 75 percent less energy to operate than in the ’70s. According to Chu, this efficiency has saved more energy than all of today’s renewable energy resources combined.
Buildings may be the next step: A white-roof building in a sunny latitude reflects sunlight back to space, instead of trapping heat. Retrofitting buildings in the U.S. would be the equivalent of taking a billion automobiles off the roads and would save homeowners about $200 a year on utilities bills.
Chu cited a new, over $400 million Department of Housing and Urban Development/Department of Energy program that will lower the costs of retrofitting entire communities. Likewise, small individual actions, as simple as putting computers into sleep mode when not in use would help cut electricity waste.
Other initiatives aren’t as simple. For some, the technology is still imperfect or costly.
Perennial grasses requiring no irrigation or fertilizer produce 15 times more ethanol than corn, but this grass is currently thrown away. According to Chu, nuclear fission and battery power have great potential, but science still needs to address issues of nuclear waste and energy storage.
‘A battery out here maybe five times better would revolutionize the automobile industry,” he said. ‘It really would change things.”
While he acknowledged though that some of the technology simply doesn’t exist yet, he expressed confidence in our ability to find solutions in science. Chu who won a 1997 Nobel Prize for his work with atoms and lasers at the research and development company Bell Laboratories spoke of the importance of creating ‘energy innovation hubs” of scientists to make headway on energy efficiency.
‘We need some really engaging technologies that will depend on breakthroughs in science, but they will also have to be applied,” Chu said.
During the question-and-answer section, UR President Joel Seligman asked what an institution like UR can contribute. Chu answered that Universities can raise awareness with all its students ‘from poets to scientists.”
‘Use your intellect and try to understand the problem,” Chu responded. ‘I see a lot of idealism. That idealism I saw in the ’60s and ’70s, and I see it again.”
Some in the audience appreciated the easy to understand nature of Chu’s presentation.
‘He makes it sound like it’s tangible, that solving the energy crisis won’t take billions of dollars and decades and decades,” junior Jamie Forman said, reacting to the speech. ‘It’s something we can start fixing now. Students here are in a really great position to make a difference here on campus.”
Leber is a member of the class of 2011.