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.

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Mr. Outside
The Bush Administration generally followed a "Drill, baby, drill" approach to energy and a "What, me worry?" approach to climate change. Obama promised the opposite on both counts.

For the Obama Administration, change begins with the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency, pursued through mandates and incentives to get vehicles to use less fuel and get appliances, buildings and factories to use less power. It's also pushing investment in wind, solar and other renewables, along with a smarter grid to exploit them. At the same time, Obama wants massive increases in federal energy research and development, plus a cap-and-trade regime that would accelerate private-sector advances by putting a price on carbon. The overall goal is to reduce emissions as well as U.S. dependence on foreign petro-thugs and a pesky vulnerability to volatile gas prices. To Republican critics, it's a radical scheme to destroy jobs and raid wallets, cooked up by élitists like Chu, who was once quoted calling U.S. gas prices too low. But Obama's message is that saving the planet makes economic sense. "We're trying to communicate that climate change is very, very serious, but hey, by the way, this is an incredible economic opportunity," Chu said.

Chu is becoming the public face of this agenda, sounding the alarm about emissions while preaching the good news of a new Industrial Revolution — to Americans and Chinese, through Facebook and PowerPoint. If White House energy czar Carol Browner is the little-seen Ms. Inside, Chu is Mr. Outside, mixing plain English with arcane data to make the case for twisty lightbulbs, white roofs, geothermal heat pumps, electric cars, advanced research and carbon-pricing. He sounds like Al Gore but with unimpeachable scientific credentials, a nonpartisan aura and a rumpled charm. At 61, he still radiates boyish impatience as well as boyish enthusiasm, with a megawatt smile that appears without warning.

Chu is also becoming the chief financier for the U.S. clean-energy sector, retooling a sclerotic department to shell out about $39 billion worth of short-term stimulus projects — nearly 150% of its normal annual budget — while reorienting its long-term research and development toward artificial photosynthesis, advanced batteries and other technologies he envisions as low-emissions "game changers." Chu plays up his geeky image — he gave Jon Stewart a Nerds of America Society T shirt on-air — but he's no ivory-tower ingenue. "Energy," he says, "is all about money." He cut his teeth in the entrepreneurial culture of Bell Labs and spent the rest of his career around Silicon Valley; he's served on the boards of a battery company, a semiconductor firm and two biotech start-ups. In his last job, he shook up the bureaucracy of DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to tackle real-world energy problems, while becoming a leading expert on energy innovation. "He's brilliant, and he understands the full breadth of the energy portfolio," says Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "There's no precedent for that."

But Obama's ambitious plans will ultimately depend on politics, and most scientists are about as adept at Beltway Kabuki as most politicians are at freezing atoms. Chu has already created a miniflap by telling reporters it wasn't his job to badger OPEC about oil prices, and he has struggled to explain why he once called coal a "nightmare." Several of his scientific initiatives have stalled on Capitol Hill, victims of lackluster salesmanship. He got his unofficial welcome to politics in February, during a tour of the University of Pennsylvania's operations facility, when a snippy Vice President Joe Biden responded to Chu's seemingly innocuous comments about energy efficiency by publicly chastising him for straying off message. "He won a Nobel Prize," Biden told the crowd. "I got elected seven times."

Chu does have an inconvenient habit of speaking his mind. At Tsinghua, he told audience members they ought to limit their driving to the weekends, a nonstarter in U.S. politics if ever there was one. In our interview, he suggested that Americans should get over their need for gas-guzzling speed ("Believe me, 0 to 60 [m.p.h.] in 8.5 sec. is fine") and meat-heavy diets ("We really don't need 12-oz. steaks every day") before he realized he was making energy transformation sound like a bummer — and abruptly changed the subject. "I don't want to deliver too many messages," Chu said, more to himself than to me. "I need to focus on 'Let's not let this incredible opportunity slip away.'"

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