Steven Chu: Technology May Bring Down the Costs of Climate Change

Don't wait for oil and gas production to run dry, the former U.S. Energy Secretary said, Instead, bet on technological advances in alternate and efficient energy.

Climate change may yield a costly future for the planet, but energy-efficient technologies could be the best way to offset some of those costs, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Chu, who shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the laser cooling and trapping of atoms, returned to research at Stanford University in 2013. However, his time in Washington, D.C. has kept him thinking about the science of energy and climate change in terms of dollars and cents.

In his plenary speech, Chu outlined both the current costs of climate change and the price that will be passed on to future generations. But he concluded his talk with an optimistic review of how new energy technologies in appliances, batteries and solar panels could make the world more energy- and cost-efficient.

One way to look at the current state of climate change, Chu said, is the familiar curve showing a century's rise in land temperatures, an increase of 0.8 degrees C from 1900 to 2011, with most of the rise occurring between 1980 and 2013.

At the same time, some climate studies, including a report released in 2013 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggest that warming temperatures may contribute to an increase in extreme weather events such as drought, floods and hurricane damage. Since 1950, seven of the 10 most costly natural disasters worldwide have been due to weather, and six of these have occurred in the past eight years.

These events have triggered significant losses by insurance companies, which in some cases may be "backstopped" by in the United States programs like the National Flood Insurance Program which provide money to insurance companies to pay out claims. Rising insurance premiums are not always enough to repay this federal money, and as a result, the federal debt related to these losses has climbed to $26 billion since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Chu said.

Some people think that there will be a natural slowdown in climate-altering pollution when global oil and gas production peak. But Chu cautioned that "we've still got enough oil and gas in the ground to really cook us." Production will likely keep pace with demand for decades, he said, because technology is making previously trapped oil and gas more "economically recoverable" around the world.

However, Chu believes that technology also will offer multiple routes toward energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. And, these technologies are costing less to manufacture and provide to consumers. For instance, Chu and others are working on a study that demonstrates how the purchase prices of appliances such as refrigerators, room air conditioners and washing machines have fallen in the wake of California's higher energy-efficiency standards for the devices.

Breakthroughs in materials and design for batteries for electric cars and cell phones are also becoming cheaper, while the cost of wind and solar power is drawing nearer to the cost of traditional power. Technologies like solar power are "disruptive," Chu acknowledged, but he said utilities should be looking at ways they can own, install and maintain these systems rather than blocking their progress.

Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu speaks at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Atlantic Photography

Money aside, there is an ethical element to using technology to create a more efficient future, Chu stressed. He compared the delay in addressing climate change's risks to the 20-year gap between the peak of cigarette smoking in the United States and the rise in cases of lung cancer.

In those 20 years, the tobacco industry staved off regulation by saying that the exact link between smoking and lung cancer was unclear. Chu said there are also large uncertainties in predicting climate change's impacts, but the risks of not addressing the problem are huge.

"What's the lag in how much carbon dioxide we can put up in the atmosphere and how long it will take us to come to equilibrium with the greenhouse gases we already have in the atmosphere?" Chu asked. "In greenhouse gases, it's all secondary smoke. We're smoking, and our grandchildren will be dying."