Mon, Dec 15, 2008 - Page 2 News List

INTERVIEW: Obama’s energy czar discusses global warming

In recent years, Steven Chu, picked by US president-elect Barack Obama to be his energy secretary and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for his work on cooling and trapping atoms using lasers, developed a keen interest in climate change. Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Chu was invited to speak on climate change and the education of the next generation of scientists as part of celebrations surrounding Academia Sinica’s 80th anniversary, attended by directors of national science councils from around the world. The scientist sat down with ‘Taipei Times’ staff reporter Shelley Huang last Sunday and shared his views on the inevitability of global warming and what this entails for humanity.

BY Shelley Huang  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taipei Times: In your speech, you used the ‘Titanic’ crashing into an iceberg as a metaphor for the problem of climate change. Can you give an estimate as to when the crash would happen?

Steven Chu (朱棣文): It’s a gradual crash. We have already seen a substantial change in climate, sea level rising, the melting of glaciers all over the world … The heat is bleaching coral at a faster rate, the number of forest fires has increased, so you can go down the list of things that are related to increases in heat and melting of polar caps … The Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas actually feed water to many of the major river basins around the world, like the Ganji River, the Yellow River … [Polar caps are] melting at a rate more than 1m in thickness a year now, but because it stretches over millions and millions of square miles [kilometers], it means a lot of water. I’ve heard stories where in India the Ganji water level has risen, it always goes up and down but the average level has risen to the point where it displaces people who live around the water, and they’ve become refugees.

This is predicted to accelerate. Pine forests in the US and Canada are dying. When the forests die we’re very exposed to floods because the mountainsides no longer have trees, and if it rains then there’s a lot of erosion.

In California and many places around the world, the moisture’s kept in the mountains by trees and snow and if you don’t have snow or trees, what happens during the wet season is you have floods, and instead of a continuous supply of water you would get floods and droughts. We’ve begun to see these effects in the last decade, and the predictions are it’s going to get much, much worse.

TT: So what are our options?

Chu: 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. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody doesn’t heat their homes or turn on air conditioning.

For example, the lighting in this building doesn’t really have to be as bright as it is.

TT: How can we use energy more efficiently?

Chu: It turns out that most people don’t understand how to build buildings. The reason I say that is because there is a major US company called United Technologies, they make air conditioning, building control systems, elevators, helicopters, jet engines … They’re a very high-tech company.

In one of their buildings — a high-rise building maybe 50 stories high — the architect changed the window and did things in such a way that it became impossible to cool the upper 15 stories of the building below 85 degrees [Fahrenheit, 29.4ºC]. So they had to do a lot of re-engineering, but the design architects and the structural engineers weren’t really talking to one another and didn’t fully understand the airflow patterns. Usually people keep the airflow pattern very simple, there’s an inlet and an outlet and you just force the airflow to happen, but forcing it could also be fighting against natural convection and the natural design of the building, making it much more energy-intensive.

TT: Are energy-efficient buildings more expensive to build than regular ones?

Chu: Energy-efficient buildings will pay for themselves. For example, 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 [percent] to 20 percent of the air conditioning load.

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