Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu sounded an alarm about global warming during a visit to Oak Ridge last week, comparing the current path to Russian roulette, but with the gun pointed at a knee—and with more bullets added each decade.
“Every decade you put in a bullet and you pull the trigger,” said Chu, a Stanford University professor who won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997. “After four or five more decades, it could be fully loaded.”
The longest-serving secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, Chu gave a lecture at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Wednesday.
The globe is warming, and we might not feel the full effect of the greenhouse gases emitted by humans for another half-century or more, after the ocean has been warmed, Chu said.
“We’re going to glide to a temperature that we’re not really sure about, but I can guarantee that it’s warmer than it is today because of that ocean,” Chu said. “The damage that we’ve done today will not be seen for at least 50 years.”
He compared the delayed onset of global warming to that of the lung cancer experienced by cigarette smokers.
“There is a delay in climate change,” Chu said. But, he added, “We don’t know how long the delay is.”
There is a difference, though, between smoking and lung cancer, and global warming and a hotter planet, Chu said.
“We’re smoking; our grandchildren get lung cancer,” he said.
Chu said ice masses are melting in Greenland and Alaska, and water tables are dropping in India and the western United States. He said humans will survive and life will persist even if the temperature rises four to five degrees. But if the world continues on its current path, there is a good chance of exceeding a five- to six-degree temperature increase by 2200, Chu said.
His Wednesday lecture, which also included a section on scientific research, provided a look at some solutions that could reduce energy use and emissions. They ranged from more energy-efficient appliances to carbon capture and sequestration. Some of the solutions depend upon getting certain technologies such as batteries available at lower costs. Chu raised the prospect of a battery-powered car that could drive 300 miles per charge and still only cost the consumer about $23,000.
“Energy is mostly market-driven,” Chu said.
He said the nation needs to develop an effective carbon capture method, one that will drop the price from its current $80 per ton to about $40-$50 per ton.
Although carbon capture could result in an increase in electrical rates, “A 6 percent increase in electricity is okay if it’s going to save the planet,” Chu said.
He said global warming could be reversible very slowly, and reforestation could help “a little bit.” However, it could take millennia.
“But we’re going in the wrong direction,” Chu said.
He recommended a carbon tax that could start at $10 per ton and increase to $50 per ton during a 12-year period to give industry time to adjust.
“I think at $50 per ton everything changes,” Chu said.
The carbon tax could have a minor impact on gas and diesel prices, Chu said. The tax would apply to all industries that produce carbon, and the revenues could be returned to the American people, he said.
“Minor, minor things like that can change the dynamic,” Chu said.