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Environment

Chu on Coal & China & Green Peas

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 12, 2010 8:00 PM

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I'm a little late to this Wired profile on Energy Secretary Steven Chu, since I just started reading the May issue last night. For hardcore Chu watchers, probably not much is new, but the piece by Daniel Roth is still worth a read, if only to be reminded that the battle against global warming is being fought on many levels, some of which are not openly discussed much. For example, the theme of the profile is Chu's pragmatism, so here's a meaty, revealing passage on his approach to both China and coal:

Chu's philosophy can, of course, irritate environmentalists. One of the topics they clash over most is coal: a dark, nasty substance that is utterly crucial to the energy supplies of both the US and China but that, per unit of energy, releases roughly 40 percent more carbon dioxide than gasoline does. Chu has called coal his "worst nightmare." But the energy secretary also knows the big countries won't abandon it. So he has turned his attention to what's called clean coal. The theory: After the rocks are heated, the CO2 would be pumped deep underground instead of into the atmosphere. For now, clean coal is hypothetical. But because Chu wants us to figure out a way to make it happen, he announced in spring 2009 that the DOE would channel $1 billion into FutureGen, a carbon-capturing power plant planned for Illinois. And not surprisingly, one of his next priorities has been getting China and the US to commit to clean coal projects together. But even thinking about clean coal infuriates environmental hard-liners. Jeff Biggers is a prominent author who writes about Appalachia, a region ravaged by coal mining. "This is where Chu is a failure," Biggers says. "He can't look anyone straight in the face and say that within 10 years we'll be able to capture carbon emissions." Chu can, however, say that he has no time for chasing all-or-nothing proposals, or ones that nobody is going to buy into. He sees the need to act now and to act fast. And most important, to act in a way that will bring China along. According to Chu, the old way to solve environmental problems was to say "Eat your peas, they're good for you." The new way is to invent clean energy technology and say "If you do this, you're going to be richer, you're going to be happier. And it turns out that it creates jobs, and oh, by the way, you have to do it anyway."

A side note: this fine profile is part of Climate Desk, a multi-magazine venture, defined as

a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact"”human, environmental, economic, political"”of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS's new public-affairs show Need To Know.

It's a great idea, and I'm rooting for it to have a big journalistic impact. But why, oh why, did they launch this thing without an accompanying blog to trumpet the stories? This is what I don't get about my print magazine colleagues: they produce excellent content and yet all too often let it disappear into a black hole. For pete's sake, put up a blog at Climate Desk, so these pieces have a forum where they can be chewed on and discussed (and distributed) more widely than they will be on a static website.

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