Editorial: Senate should confirm Chu

by Scott Thill

President-elect Barack Obama could have thrown a dart at a crowd of science nerds and picked a better Secretary of Energy than the one we currently have. As the head of Cabot Corporation, Samuel Bodman reigned as one of Texas' biggest polluters for a company found to have fueled wars and worse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And as the top dog at the Department of Energy, he has been an unmitigated failure during a period of climate crisis when America really needed a leader with his head screwed on straight rather than stuck in the sand.

So Obama's hotly anticipated selection of Nobel-Prizewinning physicist Steven Chu, professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at UC Berkeley and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is not just a breath of fresh air. It's like being freed from a hypoxiated vacuum.

To start, Chu is actually a practicing scientist, rather than a shill for the financial industry, as Bodman was. Most importantly, he is deeply invested in combating global warming using technologies old and new. Because unlike Al Gore, Chu doesn't believe we already have all the tools we need to forestall the environmental dystopia coming our way.

As such, Chu's current work is most intensely focused on innovation in renewable and sustainable energy, but his greater mission is to save the world, and save it now. To do that, he has spearheaded massive projects at Lawrence Berkeley, like Helios, which seeks to design storage solutions for solar energy by any means necessary, whether that means biofuels developed from biomass, algae or the direct conversion of water and carbon dioxide. He is committed to controlling if not reversing greenhouse gas emissions, which itself is a revelation for a White House used to only increasing them. He understands that, at even this late date, much of the American public doesn't realize the extent of the damage we are doing to the planet, damage that will exponentially increase as ice shelves melt and extreme weather takes hold.

"I am not sure most of the public realizes that the greenhouse gases that we are emitting today ha[ve] 100+ year consequences," he told the New York Times in 2006.

But he's also no dreamer: He helped birth academic-corporate partnerships like the Joint BioEnergy Institute, with Sandia National Laboratories (which is owned by Lockheed Martin), and the Energy Biosciences Institute, with noted oil-spiller British Petroleum. So Chu knows what it's like to shake the hands of polluters and nuke-builders, and he knows a thing or three hundred about navigating the dense miasma known as government bureaucracy. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he even knows how to score a perk or two for himself. And while no one in academia or politics is ever truly clean, Chu at least has less dirt on him than most.

So the pick is a serious win for a United States slowly sinking into economic, political and environmental morasses from which it will have to extricate itself. Time is running out for America, which is too close to becoming an also-ran superpower whose light flashed bright and furious for a few centuries before sinking, like the dinosaurs themselves, into a tar pit of ignorance. With Obama and Chu, and perhaps a similarly enlightened Secretary of Interior, we might just innovate our way out of this mess before it means our doom.

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