May 26, 2016

wind turbines

What's that behind the grass? Credit: Damien McMahon / Flickr Creative Commons

If you’re wondering what’s going to happen with energy, climate change, and powering our rapidly-growing world... Steven Chu is the person to talk to. He’s a physicist, a Nobel Prize winner, and a former U.S. Secretary of Energy.

And he’s got some thoughts about the future:

Are you scared of climate change? Good. You should be.

“When I was Secretary of Energy, I was talking to some of the Indian ministers who were well-versed and knew about what might happen,” Chu says. “Half of the population of Bangladesh lives within ten meters of sea level. Tens of millions of people, mostly Muslim. They’re going to pour in [through India’s] borders. ‘What are we going to do? What could we do?’ That’s what they were asking themselves.”

Man-made climate change is a fact, and the toll will be enormous. The question is no longer just what we can do to stop it, but how we can soften its impact.

If electric cars get cheaper - that’s a big deal.

Chu believes that - if battery technology continues to develop, and electric cars get less expensive - it’ll mean a major change for how we move around.

“All of the sudden when you have something like that, it goes really mainstream, then you can unload personal transportation on electricity,” Chu says. “That’s 60 percent of the transportation energy budget of the United States.”

So when will the big shift occur? “I don’t know, somewhere between 10 and 15 years from today. The battery technology will get good enough that without subsidy, an electric vehicle makes more sense.”

China will matter. A lot.

“I think [among] the central leadership of China… there is no debate whether the climate’s changing, that it’s predominantly caused by humans, and that they have to do something about it,” Chu says. “They are the biggest installers of renewable energy in the world this year... they will continue to be for the coming years. They are taking this very seriously. For example in the major cities, you can no longer buy a motorcycle… at all. They’re outlawed. You can only buy electric. They want to go as quickly as possible to electric vehicles within the city.”

Billionaires won’t save the world.

“You have to remember that even if you’re worth $50 billion, and you’re willing to sink $1 billion into this, that’s not insignificant, that’s not going to move the world,” Chu says. “It’s going to move the world if that $1 billion dollars allows you to develop a technology that the private sector picks up and you can make $100 billion.”

Even if Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates do their best to solve the climate change crisis, the solutions aren’t going to come from two or three billionaires. They’ll come from societal change.

But Chu believes that the future of the world, and energy policy, is really in the hands of young people, which is why he was part of Education First’s recent youth summit on the future of energy in Iceland.

science, Steven Chu, energy, Kara Miller, WGBH, pri

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