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A Nobel Laureate Physicist in Obama's Cabinet?

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In a previous column, I made the case for why I believed Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) would make a great pick for Energy Secretary. I commended Inslee's intelligence, genuine passion in the subject and prescience as tremendous qualities that would serve the President-elect well in crafting his ambitious energy agenda.

And, though I stand by my glowing appraisal, I am more than happy to support the pick of Dr. Steven Chu, a 1997 Nobel Laureate in physics and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, if, as the rumors have it, he is being seriously considered for the position.

In many ways, it's hard to think of a more qualified candidate. Dr. Chu would obviously bring a superb scientific pedigree to the White House (something that has been sorely lacking over the last 8 years), a deep understanding of the climate and energy crises and a solid background in both business, having served as the head of Bell Labs' electronics research laboratory, and academia. Unlike most of the other candidates under consideration, he has no Washington/legislative experience to speak of (save for his frequent dealings with the DOE), which could become a problem down the line when the inevitable Congressional negotiations take place.

As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he accelerated research into a wide variety of promising renewable energy technologies, including cutting-edge artificial photosynthesis (to study the feasibility of hydrogen fuel), solar and second generation biofuels. An early believer, he made tackling climate change one of the Lab's primary objectives, investing significant time and resources into new initiatives aimed at fostering collaborations between his staffers and other researchers at universities or in industry, and he has remained at the forefront of this battle ever since.

He has received some flack from environmentalists for orchestrating the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute, a collaboration between UC Berkeley, LBNL, the University of Illinois and, most notably, BP (which will support the institute to the tune of $500 million, spread over a 10-year period), which is set to open in 2010.

EBI is only one of three new research institutions to be established under his watch, however; his support was also instrumental in getting the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a DOE-academic partnership, and Helios, a LBNL-UC Berkeley solar energy initiative, off the ground. (Both are also set to begin construction within the next few years.) He has advised and is familiar with many of the latest promising biofuel startups, including Amyris Biotechnologies and LS9 (both of which are based in the Bay Area), and has a good grasp of the cleantech business landscape.

More important, from my point of view, has been his vocal advocacy for climate change mitigation and for funding more basic research and science education. As Wonk Room's Brad Johnson noted this weekend, Dr. Chu has spoken at length about the dangers of runaway climate change, calling a 5 degree Celsius temperature increase "the difference between where we are today and where we were in the last ice age" and something that would put "hundreds of millions to billions of people" at grave risk in a recent presentation at the National Clean Energy Summit this summer.

Speaking to the Copenhagen Climate Council a month ago, he said that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report likely underestimate the severity of the risk posed by climate change, warning that the planet could face "sudden, unpredictable, and irreversible disaster" if governments did not work together to resolve it. Temperatures could rise by as much as 4.5°C by the end of the century -- and up to 6.1°C under current trends. He urged the international community to slash greenhouse gas emissions by investing in energy efficiency and existing clean energy technologies.

Comparing our current predicament to that of a homeowner who finds out that his house is in need of expensive repair due to faulty wiring, Dr. Chu had the following to say about the difficult choices we face:

What most of us would do when faced with this situation is the intuitively obvious solution - put off the things we might have liked to do with the money, and do what it takes to make the repairs. We wouldn't take risks with our own lives and the lives of our children.

We face the same choice now: to go on living as we are, looking for lower-cost options today that will help fight the fire when it starts, or to address the risks in the house we live in, and make the repairs we can, to make the house safe for ourselves and our descendents. In our houses, we think these things are sound investments. We can adopt the same attitude for the planet.

Reasonable investments now - in energy efficiency, new technology, new sources of power, and better infrastructure - can make a dramatic difference for the future. Just as in our houses, making these investments will require changes of all of us - in our behaviors, our jobs, and our attitudes. But these changes are minimal compared to the dramatic changes that would confront us and our descendants if we do nothing.

After all, if your house burns down, you can go live elsewhere. But in the end, there's nowhere else to go for the billions of people living on a dramatically changed planet Earth.

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