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Chu Him Up and Spit Him Out

by Mytheos Holt, published

This week, President-elect Barack Obama selected Nobel Prize winner and California resident Steven Chu to serve as his energy secretary in the incoming administration. On the surface, this pick appears to be a rather inspired choice -- after all, how often is it that a man with a Nobel Prize in scientific research actually has the policy chops to work in a presidential administration? No doubt, coming off the heels of such choices as Gale Norton, countless of the supposed advocates of "competence" are getting small tingles down their spine. To make matters even more interesting, Chu appears highly energy-efficient himself, as he is apparently capable of teaching himself how to play tennis simply by reading a book. No waste for this man!

At the risk of dashing my Californian pride, it seems that someone has to point out that any joy over Steven Chu's appointment is utterly misplaced. Yes, Chu is a brilliant scientist who has won a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, his Nobel Prize has nothing to do with energy. Rather, it was won due to his work on laser cooling and atom trapping, with Chu's recent work on energy being an uncharacteristic deviation from the work for which he is most well-known. But still, one might say that a Nobel Prize winner in science is a good person to have around whatever field he won the prize in -- after all, aren't brilliant scientists often level-headed, data-driven, practical people?

No, no, and hell no. Even the most cursory look at Steven Chu's paper trail will show that Obama's appointment probably has very little to do with his actual scientific expertise and everything to do with Chu's nigh-hysterical advocacy of the theories of a much-less-credible Nobel Prize winner.

Among other controversial statements, Chu is on record expressing severe skepticism over nuclear power while hysterically announcing that "coal is my worst nightmare." It seems certain that if the force of economic growth could be given a voice, it would say the same about Mr. Chu and indeed, the suspiciously nature of Mr. Chu's subconscious fears aside, there are ample other reasons to believe that this choice on Obama's part is a blatant slap in the face to those who would like to see an all-of-the-above energy package.

Among Mr. Chu's more mundane quotes, a few pricelessly absurd gems stick out, which speak volumes about the potential energy secretary's predispositions. Among other things, Chu has argued that the problem of global warming is akin to being told that your house will burn down. If such alarmist rhetoric is not enough to raise skepticism, not to worry.

If this interview with the Taipei Times is any guide, Mr. Chu's mouth seems to have a policy of extending constant invitations to his foot. When asked what the options are in combatting global warming, Mr. Chu responded "We want it to be bad, but not awful. In order to keep it at just 'bad,' we have to immediately start decreasing the amount of energy we use." And how are we to do this, one might ask? Why, by micromanaging the brightness of lights and the colors businesses can use to paint their roofs!

"The lighting in this building doesn't really have to be as bright as it is," Chu sniffs in the interview, adding later on that "if you have a building with a flat roof, and you make the roof white, such as using white pebbles instead of dark ones, depending on the shape of the building, you can be reducing 10 to 20 percent of the air conditioning load." One presumes that the interviewer didn't have time to ask Mr. Chu if we should inflate our tires.

Now, let's be quite clear about something. Chu may be right - in fact, he probably is right - that these things would lower the demands on existing sources of energy by a small amount, but a few marginal changes do not an energy policy make. Considering that Chu has written off two of the most productive possible future sources of energy, one is left wondering what exactly he would propose in their place. These are questions that must be asked of the president-elect's pick, and unfortunately, they are questions that are unlikely to be asked by the Democratic congress.

A pity, because in times of crisis, dynamic solutions rather than the interfering effusions of self-anointed experts are what is needed. Mr. Chu might be a smart scientist, but a policymaker he is clearly not, and if his sole solution is to paint our roofs white, then Mr. Chu is painting America into a corner on questions of energy.

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