More Obama Signals on Climate Change Agenda

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By reportedly selecting physics nobelist and head of the federal government's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Steven Chu as the next Secretary of Energy, President-elect Obama makes it clear that he is serious about addressing the energy/climate change conundrum. As the head of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Chu launched the Helios Project to research how to produce liquid biofuels and solar powered electricty.

"Sustainable, carbon-neutral energy is the most important scientific challenge we face today," said Chu in a 2007 Science profile. This view is clearly is in line with Obama's promise to spend $15 billion a year on alternative energy research and to create 5 million new "green collar jobs."

Earlier this week, Obama met with former Vice-President Al Gore to talk about energy and climate change. During the press conference after the meeting, Obama said, "We have the opportunity now to create jobs all across this country in all 50 states to repower America." 

Of course, "repower America" is the campaign launched by Gore this past summer that aims to make the country's entire energy production carbon-neutral in just 10 years. Is the president-elect signaling something more sweeping by using that phrase?

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  1. It’s great to see him recruit someone with that level of knowledge and experience.

    It’s sad to see someone with that kind of knowledge and experience get sucked out of a place where he was producing real results and stuck in a political position.

  2. Policy-makers tend to know dick about science, and scientists tend to know even less about policy-writing. And while perhaps someone with an engineering mindset would be able to bridge the gap, most engineers just plain hate people.

    Not conducive to good policy formation in this scientific age.

  3. If he was truly serious, he would have appointed Sarah Palin as Secretary of Energy. She knows more about energy than anyone in America.

    Seriously, it’s going to be nice having a president who respects science and scientists. For a Change.

  4. Maybe Chu can pull a Greenspan and talk in techno mumbo-jumbo thus fooling Congress into going along with anything he wants . . . hopefully he would use such power for good not evil.

  5. I recommend the ancient art of Foo-Shun. Sure, it’s expensive and is always twenty years from practical use, but at least its cool and technological.

  6. Sustainable, carbon-neutral energy is the most important scientific challenge we face today

    If he’d made some reference in there to economic reality, I’d be happier.

    Actually, I wonder if appointing a scientist to the role of Secretary of Energy isn’t a signal that Obama is not planning to actually spend a lot of chits on green silliness.

    Obviously, Chu knows his chops in the lab, but the gap between being a good scientist and being a political operator who can help with a massive re-engineering of infrastructure, culture, and the economy is so vast that I suspect this is a symbolic appointment, one calculated to produce lots of warm fuzzies (see, e.g., joe @ 12:54), not one intended to lay the foundation for real changes in what we do and how we do it.

  7. Maybe we will be able to count on this guy to not try to sway policy toward helping his old colleagues and favored projects but instead work toward rewarding the most promising technologies by a more objective standard.

    Maybe.

    We’ll see, I guess.

  8. Obviously, Chu knows his chops in the lab, but the gap between being a good scientist and being a political operator who can help with a massive re-engineering of infrastructure, culture, and the economy is so vast that I suspect this is a symbolic appointment, one calculated to produce lots of warm fuzzies (see, e.g., joe @ 12:54), not one intended to lay the foundation for real changes in what we do and how we do it.

    Hence my post. The way to find out whether it’s serious is to see whether any serious political operatives get appointed as his deputies. If yes, then he’s serious. If not, it is probably a case of warm fuzzies.

  9. but the gap between being a good scientist and being a political operator who can help with a massive re-engineering of infrastructure, culture, and the economy is so vast

    That’s a good point. Still, after the last eight years, erring on the side of giving science too much of a seat at the policy table would seem to be preferable to the alternative.

  10. Alternative energy? Look at the price of oil.
    Obama’s chief scientific appointment should be concerned with cloning ponies.

  11. I fear the Dems (with much GOP assistance) will turn this recession into a depression.

  12. “Sustainable, carbon-neutral energy is the most important scientific challenge we face today,”

    Uh huh – and the biggest non-scientific challenge will be dealing with the reaction of the public after all the greenie nonsense gets going and results in substantially increasing the costs of all the energy they use, increases instances of electricity blackouts and brownouts, decreases the choices of vehicle types available to buy, etc etc. all with nothing even remotely resembling proof that anything of value has been obtained in exchange for all the forgoing.

  13. Chu is “head of the federal government’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory” — I doubt he’s spent much time in a lab 20 years. He manages people and, I’m guessing, he manages quite a bit of people. At this point, he might be more politician than scientist ๐Ÿ˜‰

  14. The plan to re-engineer the energy economy does not go nearly far enough and only scratches the surface at what our needs will be in the next fifty years in terms of resources.

    A better plan: A few weeks ago, it was announced out of Los Alamos that nuclear generators the size of shacks
    could be produced in mass quantities, and each one could power x0,000 number of homes for xx number of years.

    The only real problem with this is the American people in its infinite superstition is hesitant about using nuclear energy for civilian purposes. However, it is also true there is only a few lunatics in the general public who stay awake at night worrying about the existence of nuclear submarine fleet and much less, the truly worrisome creaky subs made with Soviet Tech.

    So to get over this hurdle, we nationalize the American freight industry, put nuclear shacks on every eighteen wheeler, and we nationalize the shipping industry, put a nuke shack on every ship of significant size. This will reduce carbon in the atmosphere by a far more significant extent than anything Gore has yet dreamed up, and after the public is use to driving beside these eighteen wheelers (they will simply love their new tans) we can sell back these resources to the private sector.

  15. A couple of remarks from a low-level LBL scientist (disclaimer: I speak only for myself):

    – Chu is first and foremost a scientist (and still has an active lab), but running LBL isn’t like running a personal lab. There are 4300 employees spread across many fields (physics, chemistry, biology, CS, etc.). From what I can tell, he’s done a good job and takes the mind-numbing bureaucratic responsibilities that come with it very seriously. The DOE is much larger, but he’ll have much more help.

    – In my experience – even in Berzerkeley – academic scientists tend to be pragmatists, not ideologues. We’re totally in favor of massive government spending on basic research, obviously, but we also realize that when it’s time to actually bring a product to market, the private sector does a much better job. I realize that this point of view is problematic from a libertarian perspective, but it’s also much different from the stereotypical far-left professor or environmental activist. (My personal hope – and a reasonable one, considering where Chu is coming from – is that he’ll be open to massively expanding our use of nuclear power.) In Chu’s case, the bioenergy initiatives that LBL (and UC Berkeley) is participating in involve cooperation with industry (e.g. BP), to the great dismay of local activists.

    How effective Chu is as Secretary of Energy will probably depend on who his deputies and staff are. Personally, I’m thrilled by the pick, although I confess that a) I voted for Obama anyway, and b) this is good for the future of the DOE labs. I certainly don’t want the administration to do anything crazy to our economy, but I’d also prefer that our country not be fighting oil wars with China in several decades.

  16. At this point, he might be more politician than scientist ๐Ÿ˜‰

    From what I’ve been reading (like from lurker above) he’s a little of both. Which is not a bad thing. A person that can bridge both worlds is worth his weight in gold (e.g. Oppenheimer)

  17. anonymous lurker, I’m glad you decided to post, and believe me, I know where you are coming from about the pragmatism thing. I’m as ideologically a libertarian as anyone on the board, a Rothbardian paleolib more like it, but when my sister asked me for advice about an offer she got for land use rights on a piece of property she owns the county
    wanted to use to offset wetlands, I said, ‘take the money and run.’

  18. “Sustainable, carbon-neutral energy is the most important scientific challenge we face today,”

    … thus efficientaly skipping the whole bothersome question of whether reducing our C02 output will have any positive effects on climate. Pragmatic!

    No doubt the Chinese are applauding and trying not to laugh too hard.

  19. I reviewed Obama’s energy policy during the campaign and I think he only has a childlike understanding of the complexities of our energy system. At the very least, his proposal to place a windfall profit tax shows him ignorant of both the petroleum industry and recent history. He clearly believes that because you can imagine a technology with specific attributes that you can make it. All it requires is the will to do so.

    The idea that we can create jobs with alternate energy is silly on its face. It’s not as if we have millions of unemployed high skilled workers who need something to do. Instead, alternate energy projects will merely divert work from other projects such as housing and infrastructure.

    We really have to understand that alternative energy is more about a cultural war against business and “evil corporations” than it is about protecting the environment and insuring our future. If it was actually about protecting the environment, we would build nukes and be done with it.

    Under Obama we are going to grow poorer and have progessively fewer and fewer options. Meanwhile, places like China that don’t have an anti-production political class is going to blow right past us. We’ll be trying to run smelting plants with windmills and they will have nukes.

  20. We’re totally in favor of massive government spending on basic research, obviously, but we also realize that when it’s time to actually bring a product to market, the private sector does a much better job.

    That sounds like an ideology, actually.

    …but I’d also prefer that our country not be fighting oil wars with China in several decades.

    We won’t be whether the government decides to spend a bunch of money on research in this are or not. We have a lot of domestic, more difficult to reach oil oppurtunities we can get our hands on if the price point of oil remains high enough to incentize its exploitation.

  21. Really, lack of oil is not a problem for even the medium or long term, if one means over the next hunred years or so, nor is coal a problem for that time period as well. These only become a problem if one thinks that we must eradicate them from our energy production mix in order to avert climate change. I personally don’t see that happening. We’ll be using coal and oil in significant quantatites for many years to come.

  22. A few weeks ago, it was announced out of Los Alamos that nuclear generators the size of shacks could be produced in mass quantities, and each one could power x0,000 number of homes for xx number of years. The only real problem with this is the American people in its infinite superstition is hesitant about using nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

    The larger problem is that those are about 10x too expensive for anything but very remote areas. Nuclear plants are built large for a reason; there are economies of scale.

    fighting oil wars with China

    We’re about as likely to fight a whaling war with Japan. Oil is sold on a global market and has substitutes.

  23. Uh huh – and the biggest non-scientific challenge will be dealing with the reaction of the public after all the greenie nonsense gets going and results in substantially increasing the costs of all the energy they use, increases instances of electricity blackouts and brownouts, decreases the choices of vehicle types available to buy, etc etc. all with nothing even remotely resembling proof that anything of value has been obtained in exchange for all the forgoing.

    Here’s what I don’t get. Conservatives tend to be *so fucking sure* that environmentalism will (in no particular order):

    Destroy the Economy
    Give China a Strategic Advantage
    Ruin Science
    Enslave America

    …and leaving aside for a second the fact that at least one and two are literally mutually exclusive (China’s economy is bound so tightly with ours that a collapse on either side would ruin the other utterly)…

    Why not just let their point be proved? If environmental policy cannot be swayed before-the-fact, then why not sit back, “be right”, and then put it to bed once-and-for-all a decade from now when actual evidence shows you to be right and everyone else to be wrong?

    It reminds me of Christians who fear the end-times. It means God’s coming back! You should be celebrating! Unless…you aren’t so confident in your beliefs after all.

  24. Anyway, I have little faith in the ability of the government to plan for, design, etc. the third (or fourth) industrial revolution. It didn’t anticipate the first two or three (depending on how one counts) and it won’t anticipate the upcoming one either.

  25. Good background, anonymous lurker.

    Anyway, I have little faith in the ability of the government to plan for, design, etc. the third (or fourth) industrial revolution.

    Well, not successfully, anyway.

  26. I echo joe in concurring with R C’s observation. Yes, managing a national lab is a very political job, but it’s an order of magnitude smaller than managing a cabinet department and (more importantly) many orders of magnitude away from managing the infrastructure and economic changes involved with any sort of transition to different energy sources.

    OTOH, if you find it plausible that a sufficiently good technology will only make it into our homes via the private sector, then maybe the best thing Chu can do is help with R&D for the technology and then sit back and not try to manage the transition.

  27. Why not just let their point be proved? If environmental policy cannot be swayed before-the-fact, then why not sit back, “be right”, and then put it to bed once-and-for-all a decade from now when actual evidence shows you to be right and everyone else to be wrong?

    Change? Change? Got a decade to spare? That’s all I ask for to get me through . . .

  28. Elemenope,

    Dude, they tried to plan how the economy was going to develop in the USSR, and it led to all manner of nasty ineffeciencies. As far as I can tell greenies in general want to plan what sort of economy we’ll have in the future and the sorts of technology we will use. Planning leads to sub-optimal for a number of reasons (part of that having to do with the Hayekian knowledge problem), so as long as greenies are talking about planning, as opposed to something like minimally structured markets in pollution or perhaps a tax on certain pollutants I’m not going to be very enthuasiastic about what greenies propose.

  29. Elemenope,

    Or let’s put it this way: I don’t have to give them a decade to prove that planning is wrong. The planning of the 20th century already has provided enough natural experiments for me to come to that conclusion.

  30. Come on man, just a decade, and sign away all decision making power to me for that decade, and I swear on Paul Ralph Ehrlich’s grave, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll give it all back.

  31. That sounds like an ideology, actually.

    Perhaps, but it’s really based on empirical observation and practical considerations, as opposed to the more utopian views of communists and anarcho-capitalists. Philosophically, I tend to agree with the latter, but I also think that our current mix of public/private science works pretty damn well, despite some warts.

    (I should point out, in response to several other comments, that it definitely works best when governments – or more specifically, the politicians and non-scientific bureaucrats – refrain from micromanaging basic research. It’s not a free market in the capitalist sense, but Hayek’s view of markets vs. central planning seem to apply here, as far as I can tell. Scientists constantly complaint about the ruthless competition for grant money, but I think this is part of what makes the system function.)

    OTOH, if you find it plausible that a sufficiently good technology will only make it into our homes via the private sector, then maybe the best thing Chu can do is help with R&D for the technology and then sit back and not try to manage the transition.

    This actually states my view much better than I did. ๐Ÿ™‚

  32. Come on man, just a decade, and sign away all decision making power to me for that decade, and I swear on Paul Ralph Ehrlich’s grave, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll give it all back.

    Well, we just saw the same principle in reverse engineer the mass suicide of conservatism as a viable political ideology in the US for next decade-and-a-half or so, and that only took *eight* years.

    So it’s not crazy. And since you’re on the way wrong side of public opinion right now, the only way you will politically win the argument is if your opponents control things and fuck it up.

  33. Alternative energy is over. Gasoline is cheap again. Why bother?

  34. after all, what does society have to do with it? It’s just you and me, and we can decide on this trade off and everything will either go one way or the other with nothing messy left over, right?

  35. If environmental policy cannot be swayed before-the-fact, then why not sit back, “be right”, and then put it to bed once-and-for-all a decade from now when actual evidence shows you to be right and everyone else to be wrong?

    Partly because in the meantime huge damage will be done, but motly because they’ll never admit they were wrong. We’re already seeing studies claiming that while the next 10 years won’t see any warming, there’s going to be lots and lots of warming after that!

    The whole thing is already on shaky ground and that isn’t stopping anyone. For instance, they’re “proving” global warming by claiming older temperature measurements need to be adjusted down; this isn’t science, it’s Orwellian revisionism. Here’s an example.

    Note that the unadjusted temps show a cooling trend, but with the adjustment it magically reverses. The world has always been getting warmer.

  36. Look, man, I’m begging you, turn it all over to me NOW, if I don’t make book on the Instant Karma I’ve promised them immediately, the public will get restless, and instead of plying my trade on K Street, two years tops I’ll be setting shop in a cardboard box off MLK Drive.

  37. “Seward | December 11, 2008, 2:23pm | #

    Elemenope,

    Or let’s put it this way: I don’t have to give them a decade to prove that planning is wrong. The planning of the 20th century already has provided enough natural experiments for me to come to that conclusion.”

    Dude, setting aside those who know better, but don’t care – you’re dealing with slow learners, here. The kind that, even when they do figure out the emperor has no clothes, can be counted on to forget what they’ve learned as soon as it is emotionally or political convenient. And then browbeat the wreckers all over again.

  38. @LMNOP Policy-makers tend to know dick about science, and scientists tend to know even less about policy-writing. And while perhaps someone with an engineering mindset would be able to bridge the gap, most engineers just plain hate people.

    Nuclear and particle physics are Big Science. They involve spending a great deal of other people’s money (the phases “dirt cheep” and “shoestring budget” are often applied to any project which can be done for less than $10M US). As such these disciplines need (and have and train) a cadre of people who I like to call “physicist managers” to take care of the politics and large scale money management.

    There is a fair chance that this guy is only a decent physicist but a good manager/wheeler-dealer. A lot of them are.

    Hmmm. A lot of them are also hard to live with.

  39. Preview, damnit! Preview.

    LMNOP’s text ends at “…hate people”. Mine beings at “Nuclear and…”

  40. “Why not just let their point be proved? If environmental policy cannot be swayed before-the-fact, then why not sit back, “be right”, and then put it to bed once-and-for-all a decade from now when actual evidence shows you to be right and everyone else to be wrong?”

    Why?

    Because it means a lot of increased expenses for me personally and a loss of freedom for me personally.

    And there is one thing that I AM f***ing sure of – that there is no outcome on this earth that could ever be of any higher value than MY absolute individual freedom to the max.

  41. “So it’s not crazy. And since you’re on the way wrong side of public opinion right now,…”

    We would quickly find out what actual public opinion is when any greenie policy starts personally costing folks some serious cash.

    It’s easy to pay lip service to something in polls and spout slogans advocate something that is perceived to be politically correct – especially if one thinks that other person, compnay or industry will be the ones paying for it.

    It’s altogether different when it starts hitting one’s own wallet.

  42. anonymous lurker,

    Perhaps, but it’s really based on empirical observation…

    Such as? I think basic research would be paid for whether government was involved in it or not. There has certainly been a long history of basic research without government funding.

  43. I think basic research would be paid for whether government was involved in it or not. There has certainly been a long history of basic research without government funding.

    Not at anything remotely approaching the scale of the modern First World academic community. Companies have to make a profit, and are understandably reluctant to sink massive amounts of money into basic research that can take decades to pay off. (In my field, the first attempt to apply it to biology was in the late 1930s; pharmaceutical companies only adopted it in the 1980s, but now they all use it routinely. Several people won Nobel prizes along the way, but no one got rich from it.)

    There are a few corporations that are large and profitable enough to fund basic research independent of their primary commercial goals; Bell Labs is the most obvious example. These are the exception, and they still tend to be focused on areas that have obvious potential for future products. The best situations are where the goals or technical requirements of corporations and academics are close enough that companies can subsidize public efforts; this is where my salary comes from. This isn’t very common either.

    Private philanthropy? The Gates foundation is wonderful, and there are some other excellent organizations (Howard Hughes started one with the main goal of keeping his fortune out of the government’s control), but they’re much smaller. Most if not all university endowments are too small to sustain their research departments independently of federal funding.

    I think it would be wonderful if there was enough private money floating around to fund research on the current scale. I suppose if you slashed taxes far enough, that might free up enough for that purpose. . . but I can guarantee that if you cut the NIH and NSF out of the federal budget and refunded that money to the taxpayers, private sources would not magically appear to replace them. I respect the argument that it doesn’t matter, taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing unprofitable science anyway, just as I respect the argument that welfare should be taken care of by private charity, but like I said, I’m a pragmatist.

  44. Progressives must be very disappointed.

    It’s like a civil war out there.

  45. A lot of people on this board make me realize what debates regarding cars must have been like in the early 1900s. ‘Cars, that is just bumbo jumbo talk. Why bother with those contraptions when the horse I already have will work just fine.’… ahh, memories.

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