U.S.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu described the U.S. failure to anticipate changes in
the global energy supply during a talk at the John F. Kennedy School of
Government
Aug. 6.

Chu
cited the discovery of lithium batteries as just one of the many advanced
technologies that the United States has surrendered over the decades to others
in Europe and Asia.

“We
invented lithium batteries,” Chu said, “but they were made commercially viable
by Sony,” with the United States as one of its biggest importers.

Stealing
a hockey metaphor during his public talk “Laying the Foundation for the Next
Generation of Clean Energy Jobs,” Chu asked:
“Are we skating to where the puck will be?

“Around
the globe, countries are realizing that business as usual will not do,” the secretary
said. “I remind you about what Wayne Gretzky answered whenever someone asked
him why he was such a good hockey player. He said, ‘I position myself on the
ice by skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’” Not
what the United States is doing, acknowledged Chu.

With
U.S. oil production declining steadily since the 1970s, the United States now
imports 60 percent of its crude oil. While China spends over $12 million an
hour on new energy technology in hopes of becoming a green technology leader,
the United States keeps falling behind in that area.

The
talk also featured U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, chair of the Select Committee on
Energy Independence and Global Warming and co-author, with Rep. Henry Waxman, of
the most recent carbon cap-and-trade bill, which passed the House last month.

Outside
the Harvard Kennedy School, a dozen demonstrators held up red and yellow signs
that read “Stop Climate Change Now.” The demonstrators, volunteers from
Greenpeace and the Global Warming Education Network, came from Massachusetts
and Washington, D.C., to rally in favor of “a stronger negotiation for a
climate treaty in Copenhagen,” where a U.N. climate summit is scheduled this
December.

“We
are here to try to encourage President Obama to do more to help slow climate
change by cutting carbon dioxide emissions more dramatically than he is
currently attempting to,” one demonstrator said.

Inside,
Chu and Markey addressed a packed John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Chu said that in
10 or 20 years, the world will have high oil prices, newly developed countries demanding
more resources than they do today, and a carbon-constrained reality where climate
change will be undeniable. Facing that sort of future, Chu lamented the
skepticism with which climate change is still met in Washington.

“Some
people believe that climate isn’t changing. A number of policy makers have told
me, ‘well, in the last five years the Earth has been cooling.’ Notice how
dramatically the Earth has been ‘cooling down,’” Chu remarked, pointing at data
depicting the opposite. “We have an expression at the Department of Energy: Everyone
is entitled to their own opinion; they are not entitled to their own facts.”

Chu
cited facts such as a faster rise in sea levels than climate forecasts had
predicted 15 years ago, the acceleration of ocean warming, and evidence of the
loss of glacier ice packs around the world.

“This
is where we are today,” Chu said.

A
business-as-usual scenario, Chu warned, would include a dramatic increase in
heavy downpours as climate change brings about more precipitation. Other
changes could threaten agriculture; fertile land could become desert. The
United States will not be spared from this, he added.

The
United States should aim for increased energy efficiency and decreased energy
consumption, Chu said. He emphasized that the only initiatives he and his team
would entertain are ones that can pay for themselves over a lifetime investment
rather than those that are good, yet more costly.

“It’s
possible to decrease energy consumption in America by 23 percent by 2020,” Chu
said. “The Waxman-Markey [bill] calls for a 17 percent decrease,” he said.

Though
Waxman-Markey seeks a 17 percent decrease in energy consumption, some say the
legislation isn’t ambitious enough.

“The
science demands that, as a group, these countries need to cut emissions to 40
percent below 1990 levels by 2020,” reads a statement on the Greenpeace Web site.
“Unless they raise their game considerably over the next six months, the world
will be heading for a global temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius and the
distinct possibility of irreversible climate impacts. … Something has to
change.”

In
a question-and-answer session at the end of the event, a woman from the
Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities asked why no one is talking
about the 1 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions – which wouldn’t
avoid the bleak scenario of even a 2 degree warming – that would result from
the bill.

Markey
conceded that the United States is behind in its efforts but said the nation
has the ability to catch up quickly.

“We
moved from black rotary dial phones to Blackberry very quickly,” Markey said. “We
moved from narrowband to broadband very quickly. People underestimate how
quickly we’re going to move to this new revolution once we put the market
incentives in place and fund basic research. I think we’re going to have a very
rapid response. I’m an optimist.”

Exceeding
the Waxman-Markey benchmark, Chu said, is in the hands of the American people.
Transitioning to white or light-colored roofs, for example, which can reflect
solar radiation back into space, would decrease air conditioning bills by 20
percent and be the equivalent to taking all the cars in the world – a billion
vehicles – and keeping them off the road for 11 years.

Americans
should also support the design of what Chu called highly automated buildings,
analogous to computerized cars with microprocessors measuring different
variables to help control and increase energy efficiency.

“The
garage mechanic doesn’t know what the vehicle’s computer is doing and neither
does the driver. But it doesn’t matter. It works,” Chu said.

Markey’s
optimistic sentiment was shared by members of the audience composed of
students, retired elementary school teachers, energy consultant groups, Harvard
alumni, and even high school summer students like British siblings Tara and
Philip Elsen, who were eager to hear Chu’s perspective and learn “what Obama is
doing in America.”