How can Steven Chu be hopeful?

Climate change has already made this world warmer and wackier. So why does this Nobel Prize-winner still find reason to laugh?

by Allen Best

Big Pivots

Where to start with Steven Chu? That he was a secretary of energy in the Obama administration for four years?

That he won a share of the Nobel prize in physics in 1997?

Or that he delivered the most interesting, frightening but at times funny lecture about climate change that I have heard?

That Zoomed lecture occurred on March 4 at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment, a program within the law school at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This report starts with his parting comments.

“Time is running out,” he said. “The real scary stuff is the stuff we have seen in the last decade, the violent weather, the forest fires, the droughts. I thought that they were 30 to 50 years in the future, but they’re here now.”

Steven Chu

The evening’s moderator was ready to wish everyone well and thank you Dr. Chu, when he had one last thought.

“You can’t give up hope, because if you give up hope you can say you no longer care about your children and your grandchildren,” he said.

Which begs the question. What hope do we have?

We have very little hope of stabilizing the changing climate to avert what Chu described as some very, very bad turbulence. Most of the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide that have been occurring since the start of the industrial era in the 1750s have actually been added in the last 65 years. We’re now at 415 parts per million and will almost certainly hit 500 ppm and likely 550 ppm.

About 15 years ago, scientists were saying they expected the climate wobbling to begin at about 450 ppm. Turns out they were too conservative by far.

Chu was detailed but brief in laying out the scientific evidence. To find the concentrations of carbon dioxide we have today, he said, you have to go back 3 to 5 million years, to a time when the intensity of the sun was about the same. The Earth’s temperature then was 2 degrees warmer and the sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher.

That takes us back to the emissions locked into the system now, some of which are unlikely to be manifested for another century.

“In order to stay below 2 degrees, something has to happen,” he said. “The carbon emissions for everything in the world have to go below zero. I’ll say it again. It has to be below zero. That’s not just the carbon from power plants. It’s everything.”

This is from Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at bigpivots.com

Now it’s my turn to say it again. Think zero carbon, then think about a way to actually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s not something we’ve actually mastered yet, not in any way that is practical. We’ve figured out how to have astronauts flying untethered to a space ship. But we haven’t figured out the technology that will spare us the rising heat that will in turn cause intensifying droughts in some places on the planet—likely including the Colorado River Basin—and far more flooding elsewhere, seawater rising along the coasts and into our most populous cities.

We’ve become hyper-focused on the carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and, to a lesser extent, natural gas. Several times Chu suggested it’s time to think more broadly, especially with agriculture.

“What is the greatest emitter of carbon dioxide? It’s not electrical generation,” he said. “It’s agriculture use and forestry, at least 28% according to the IPCC summary report.”

Our hunger for animal protein has led us to a dangerous place. We create cattle that live 18 to 14 months, he said, pigs 22 to 26 weeks (during which time they grow to be 280 pounds), and broiler chickens in 40 days. And there are the breast-heavy turkeys, bred for their white meat, which most of us in the United States (myself included) favor.

This does produce methane. “If beef and dairy cattle were a country, the carbon dioxide emission would be more than any country except China and the United States.” This, of course, takes a huge commitment of land, to feed the animals we eat.

As for renewable energy, it’s all fine, but to get beyond 80% of our electrical generation it needs to be supplemented by storage.

Pumped-storage hydro provides 96% of the world’s energy storage around the world (and nearly 100% in Colorado). The global storage totals 2 gigabytes, but needs to be about 10,000 gigabytes.

Batteries will help. Chu predicted prices will drop three-fold in the future, “but they need to go down another 3-fold to achieve what we need,” he said.

Chu went on to talk about oil tankers (transmission costs for delivering oil are only 2 cents a gallon), about the “poop-less carriages” of the early 20th century that quickly gained favor in places like New York City, where horse manure sometimes could be a foot and a half deep in the streets, and the threat of electric vehicles to auto dealers, who Chu said are “petrified” that they will lose their ability to make money with the servicing of vehicles.

I hope this story has informed, but it’s just a peek. The 128-minute video can be seen HERE.

Before you go, let me suggest you stick around on the video toward the end, where he talks about why we have to make a go of it on this planet. He describes the limits of existing technology for space travel. You think driving across Wyoming or Nevada takes time. He said covering just one-tenth of the Milky Way Galaxy would require 2.6 million years.

Instead, we need to redefine “wealth,” he said. “Right now wealth is defined by gross domestic product, which is defined by how much stuff you can make and use.” The world cannot sustain the population of 11 billion people projected for century’s end if that population aspires to the American definition of wealth.

Chu suggested something called the human development index, one that better equates wealth with quality of life.

“This is our home, and we have to take care of this one, because that’s all we have,” he said.

And hence, of dire necessity, the hope.

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Allen Best