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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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Steven Chu: Tomorrow is Today

This morning, Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu spoke at SLAC. At a national scale, Secretary Chu is notable since he is a Nobel-prize winning physicist. Locally, he is well known since he was a professor at Stanford (and Physics Department Head) and was most recently the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is geographically close to SLAC.

I expected his talk to focus on SLAC and the relationship between the DOE and the National Labs. He began by discussing how the DOE has supported the work of 88 Nobel Laureates and assuring us that basic science research was a priority for him. While the DOE may be often seen as involved in nuclear weapons and power or energy research, to many of us it is the main funder of basic science work. It is refreshing to know that the head of DOE shares that idea.

The majority of his talk focused on climate change and what we can do to reduce emissions. This is an issue he worked on before he was head of the DOE and he is now in an excellent position to make progress. It was very useful to see climate change discussed in terms of data, plots, and 90% confidence intervals, rather than the usual ideological arguments. I can see how certain pundits twist the data – there was one prediction in the early 90’s regarding a certain climate change parameter that did not match the measurements taken since. While one can say, “Wow, that data is outside of the 90% confidence error bars so climate scientists really don’t know what they are doing” – it is important to realize that the prediction underestimated the change. Likewise, he showed that there is a carbon cycle in the earth’s crust that has been mapped out for the past 800,000 years. Yes it is a cycle, but the current value is outside of the amplitude of this cycle and it is predicted to get much, much worse. The earth has seen temperature changes of 6 degrees before, but those changes occurred over thousands of years, so that adaptation was possible. We’re looking at a change of 6 degrees of 100 years – adaptation does not happen that quickly. These are all details that get lost in normal news coverage of the climate change “controversy”. Perhaps we don’t know all of the details yet, but the data still makes it look like the world is going to end.

His talk was not just doom and gloom – it was a challenge for us to apply our “intellectual horsepower” to the problems at hand. He discussed how a predicted fertilizer shortage in the early 1900’s was averted through the creation of artificial fertilizer. Predictions in the 1960’s that the world would run out of food were wrong because of new grain hybrids created to grow more efficiently. If the world doesn’t end, it won’t be because our data is wrong. It will be due to the scientific achievements of the next few decades.

He ended with a brilliant quote from Martin Luther King, Jr:

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.

I thought about summarizing the numbers and data that he presented, but it is too extensive for me to do it justice. Instead, I will point you to the Technical Summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is 74 pages of data and plots regarding patterns in the ice, atmosphere, temperature, and precipitation of our planet. As a scientist, I look and see that our climate is changing. Secretary Chu’s response to those who question the ideas of climate change was “People are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

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