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Obama's Energy Secretary Outlines Dire Climate Change Scenario
Steve Chu's warning the clearest sign to date of the greening of America's political class under Obama
Unless there is timely action on climate change, California's agricultural bounty could be reduced to a dust bowl and its cities disappear, Barack Obama's energy secretary said yesterday.
The apocalyptic scenario sketched out by Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate appointed as energy secretary, was the clearest sign to date of the greening of America's political class under the new president.
In blunt language, Chu said Americans had yet to fully understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. "I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he told the Los Angeles Times in his first interview since taking the post. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going."
Chu's doomsday descriptions were seen yesterday as further evidence that, after eight years of denial under George Bush, the Obama White House recognises the severity of climate change.
Chu is not a climate scientist, and won his Nobel for his work on lasers. But he was well-known at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for his outspoken concern about climate change and his commitment to developing clean energy long before Obama appointed him.
The language he used yesterday, though stark, was in step with a co-ordinated effort by Obama's officials and Democrats in Congress to project an image of consensus among policy makers in Washington on the need to move America away from fossil fuels and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
In the interview, Chu said raising public awareness was crucial to that transformation. "I'm hoping that the American people will wake up."
He blamed warmer temperatures for the acceleration in California's cycle of droughts. Global warming had caused a decline and evaporation of the Sierra mountains snow-pack, which had served as a natural storage system for the spring run-off that helped irrigate California's valleys and provided water to its cities.
Chu said up to 90% of the Sierra snow-pack could disappear, eliminating those sources of water.
Scientists have long cited the declining spring run-off as a contributing cause of California's wildfires. California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has blamed climate change for making forest fires a year-round threat.
California's department of water resources said last week that the state's snow-pack was at 61% of normal levels. The reduction is especially worrying because of the severely dry spring of 2008, leaving the state with little water in reserve. Two dozen local water agencies have already imposed rationing.
There are heightened concerns about water shortages in the west and upper midwest as well. Earlier this year, the journal Science warned of worldwide crop shortages because of rising temperatures.
Obama ran a presidential campaign pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the middle of the century. He made his first move to redeeming that promise last week when he ordered the environmental protection agency to reconsider its refusal, when Bush was president, to allow California and 13 other states regulate car exhaust emissions.
He also directed the car industry to produce cars that can achieve 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
In the two weeks since Obama's inauguration, there have been almost daily meetings and conferences on the environment on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. After the Bush era, when science and concern about the environment took a back seat to business interests, administration officials have taken it almost as their mantra that they put science first in dealing with climate change.
They also say they will press hard to retain green measures in the economic rescue package now before Congress, and for legislation regulating greenhouse gas emissions this year.
Barbara Boxer, the chair of the Senate's environment and public works committee, said on Tuesday she hoped to produce a draft bill reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year. Henry Waxman, her counterpart in the House of Representatives, has set an even more ambitious target, saying he aims to have a draft out of the committee by the end of May.
But the extent of public support is less clear, and a number of leading Republicans remain implacably opposed to the idea that global warming exists. Recent opinion polls suggest that the economic recession has eclipsed concern about the environment.
Democrats insist that the downturn should not prevent action on greenhouse gas emissions. "If you want to fight this recession, do it by mobilising to become energy independent with clean energy and really save this planet," said Boxer.
But America's credit crisis appears to have stopped the growth of the wind and solar power industries in their tracks. Factories building components for wind turbines and solar panels have been letting staff go.