Can Steven Chu Win the Fight Over Global Warming?

Steven Chu, the Nobel-winning Secretary of Energy, says people caused global warming. He also says people, with science's help, can solve it

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Jose Mandojana for TIME

Chu at the Hanford nuclear-waste site in Richland, Wash.

"What the U.S. and China do over the next decade," declared Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize – winning physicist who is leading President Obama's push for a clean-energy economy, "will determine the fate of the world."

Chu had gone to Beijing's Tsinghua University, the "MIT of China," to make his half-apocalyptic, half-optimistic pitch about climate change. In his nerdy professor style and referring to "Milankovitch cycles" and the "albedo effect" as well as melting glaciers and rising seas, Chu methodically explained that the science is clear, that we're boiling the planet — but also that science can save us, that we can innovate our way to sustainability. He acknowledged that the developed nations that made the mess can't tell the developing world not to develop, but he also warned that China is on track to emit more carbon in the next three decades than the U.S. has emitted in its history; that business as usual would intensify floods, droughts and heat waves in both countries; that greenhouse gases respect no borders. This earth, he concluded, is the only one we've got; it would be illogical and immoral to fry it. "Science has unambiguously shown that we're altering the destiny of our planet," he said. "Is this the legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren?"

It was a tough message to deliver to the Chinese — basically, "Do as we say, not as we did" — but it's hard to imagine a more credible messenger. It's not just that Chu is a Chinese American whose parents both graduated from Tsinghua before attending the real MIT or that he's the most qualified leader ever at the Department of Energy (DOE) — which is a bit like being the most likable character ever on NYC Prep. It's also that Chu is the kind of scientific savant the Chinese revere, a techno-geek who scored a Nobel for developing methods of cooling atoms to a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero, who shelved his quantum-physics career to try to save the planet but on weekends still tries to cure cancer with lasers. "In the U.S., rock stars and sports stars are the glamour people. In China, it's scholars," Chu told me during his trip to Beijing. "Here, Nobel laureates are the equivalent of Britney Spears."

That's one reason Chu's message doesn't resonate all that well with Americans. They ranked global warming last in a national survey of 20 top priorities; in a global poll, only 44% of them wanted action to be taken on the issue, vs. 94% of Chinese. Most Republican leaders flatly reject prevailing climate science, while many Democrats from coal, oil and farm states are equally protective of the fossil-fuel status quo. This is why the American Clean Energy and Security Act — a far-reaching Democratic bill that would cap carbon emissions — has been marketed to a confused public on the basis of issues that poll far better: gas prices, foreign oil and green jobs. It narrowly passed the House, but it's in trouble in the Senate, and the President, while supportive, is now preoccupied with health care.

Anyway, Americans usually don't pay much attention to Energy Secretaries, who tend to be political loyalists with little energy expertise; President Ronald Reagan once appointed a dentist to the job. Since its founding during the last energy crisis, in 1977, the DOE has become a bloated backwater of the military-industrial complex, primarily responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons and cleaning up nuclear waste and generally ignored between security breaches at its nuclear labs. But now there's a new energy crisis, and the appointment of a global-warming Paul Revere who's also a green-tech Albert Einstein has signaled Obama's desire to put the E back in DOE, to have a first-tier brain reinvent a second-tier agency, to keep his Inaugural Address pledge to "restore science to its rightful place." With Obama publicly committed to an economic transformation designed to slash U.S. carbon emissions 80% by 2050, Chu will be America's first Clean-Energy Secretary — a job that's part green evangelism, part venture capitalism and part politics.

He's perfect for parts one and two. The fate of the world, in Chu's calculation, hinges on part three.

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