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Chu: 'economic disaster' from warming

February 7, 2009 | 10:42 am

Steven_chu

(Cross-posted at The Swamp)

Earlier this week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu caused a stir in the Golden State - and many circles across the country - with his warnings that global warming could destroy California agriculture by century's end.

Chu isn't a climate scientist - he's a Nobel-winning physicist - but he's served on several climate-change commissions, and in his position, will be one of President Obama's point men on the climate issue. His comments came in a 40-minute interview, his first since being confirmed as secretary.

"This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children," he said, near the end of an extended riff on the topic.

Here, for the first time, is that riff, only slightly edited for length. For all sides of the climate debate, it makes for fascinating reading.

CHU: Carbon dioxide "is a global problem. The cost of the carbon emissions are things that, number one, won't show up immediately in one year, or even in 10 years. They have begun to appear. The real costs are hard to estimate because we don't know to what extent, how bad it's going to get, in all honesty. There are projections... You can make a best guess on what might happen.

I prefer - there are people who say, since we're not sure, we really shouldn't do about it - I think, in my opinion, a more measured way of dealing with this is, it's all about the risk, the potential risk, the downside risk of not doing something, or maybe doing it in a very moderate way.

The analogy I like to use is, suppose you buy a house, and then in the inspection, the structural engineer says, well, this House is a fine house, but understand, you have to rewire the house, because it's an old wiring and there's a chance of an electrical fire. It's going to cost a lot of money, but you should rewire... So you get an estimate of whether you really need to rewire the house, or whether you can go another, safely for another 20 years or 10 years.

Suppose, just pretend, that the next person comes and says, essentially, I think the wiring is shot. I can't guarantee if it's going to be this year or five years from now, but you run the risk of an electrical fire. So now you have many options. You can continue to shop for the answer you want: your house is safe. Or you can say, I know the solution.... let's pretend it's $20,000, a lot of money, that's going to come out of your budget, an you can't - you're going to have to forgo a lot of other things.

You could say, well, I could just get better fire insurance. You're probably not going to do that. Because there's a chance the house could burn down when you're asleep and your kids are asleep in the house. So eventually, you might be led to say, if there's a 50 percent chance my house might burn down in five years, I better do the rewiring. Then you have to bite the bullet. No one is telling you there's a 100 percent chance this is going to happen.

So ... we certainly are seeing some of the consequences of a changing climate. More and more, it's coming down very hard on the fact that, it's caused by humans. And will there be a cost in trying to control carbon emissions? Well yes, like there's a cost in trying to clean up our sewage. But overall, the benefit to the world will be better.

You know, if there's only five people on the earth, you don't have to worry about this. But the fact, with the population we have today, the fact is we don't want to go backward in terms of the prosperity of developed countries, and we see developing countries wanting to do [the same]. We've got to figure out a way to use the energy we have more efficiently, and the get newer, cleaner sources. And to get better technical solutions, better technical options...

Hopefully the American public will wake up and support their policymakers who see this is an essential issue. I don't think the American public has grasped in its gut what could happen. So let me give you one example. It's local to California.

California's major part of its water storage system is in the Sierra Mountains. It snows there, and then we have dams, but it's the snow and the slow melting of the snow and the forests in the watershed area that helps store the water in California. And much of the Central Valley is desert. Los Angeles, San Diego - it's all desert. Without water - right now, California spends about 20 percent of its electricity moving water.

What is being predicted in climate change, there are two bracketed scenarios. The more optimistic one - that we will really control carbon emissions, that we will get a handle on this, and we're talking the end of this century - even by mid-century, in the optimistic scenario, we will have decreased our snow pack by 20 percent on an average basis.

And our forests are going to begin to die, because of parasites and such. At the end of this century, optimistic scenario, you will have decreased [snow pack] by 47 percent. In the pessimistic scenario, the snow pack will decrease by 70 to 90 percent. Well, let me tell you what California does when there's a two-year in a row 20 percent decrease in snow pack: They water-ration.

Q: So you're looking at a scenario of permanent water rationing?

CHU: No, you're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. When you lose 70 percent of your water in the mountains, I don't see how agriculture can continue. California produces 20 percent of the agriculture in the United States. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going.

This is not only true of California, this is true for all the Western states. Forests are dying because of parasites. The pine bark beetle is killing pine. British Columbia has already lost 40 percent of its pine ... so, when there are no trees, when it rains, the soil doesn't hold the water...

The American public needs to be made aware that this is happening. This is a real economic disaster in the making for our children, for your children. If you live in California, any of the Western states, this is going to be very serious. In the Upper Midwest, water shortages, huge water shortages are being predicted. ... It goes back to this fire insurance. How do we find the political will? It hopefully has to come from the people of America.

--Jim Tankersley

Photo: Energy Secretary-Steven Chu; Credit: Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press

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