Daunting task awaits Obama's energy pick

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 December, 2008, 12:00am

This is not the best of times for the fight against global warming. Economic crises make it politically harder for governments to justify imposing the extra costs to curb greenhouse emissions. They are a godsend to opponents and sceptics of climate change science, especially those on the fringe who believe it is a hoax, who are quick to argue this is the worst of times to fall for it.

Perhaps it is the right time, then, for science to be given more political clout. That is what US president-elect Barack Obama has done by reportedly choosing physicist Steven Chu for the climate-change hot seat in his administration, secretary for energy.

The son of Chinese wartime emigrants to the US, Dr Chu shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 for his work in laser cooling and the trapping of atoms. A foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a familiar visitor to Hong Kong, he was an early advocate of finding scientific solutions to climate change. As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he has focused it on development of carbon-neutral energy sources.

Mr Obama has pledged to spend US$150 billion over 10 years to promote renewable energy sources.

Dr Chu will be only the 12th US energy secretary, a relatively recent cabinet post. Curiously, his responsibilities will include the maintenance and development of America's nuclear weapons stockpile. But climate change is now, with some justification, seen as a greater threat to the world than that of mass destruction.

Opponents of American participation in international efforts to curb greenhouse emissions argue this would hurt the country's economic interests. Mr Obama has tried to deflect such criticism with a pledge to focus on science in transforming America into a low-carbon fuel economy. Colleagues and energy industry groups have rightly applauded the choice of Dr Chu to deliver on it. At 60, he has taken on the toughest job of a distinguished career. If he can pull it off, it could be worth another Nobel Prize.