It emerged last night that President-Elect Barack Obama will “likely” name physicist Steven Chu as the next Secretary of Energy. This is one of the most significant appointments the President-Elect has made yet, due to both the nature of the position and the unique background of the appointee. The official announcement is expected next week and, if appointed, Nobel Prize winner Chu will be the first Secretary of Energy to hold a PhD, and the only one to be a practicing scientist.   


This designation is hugely significant. There has been a severe lack of understanding of the scientific aspects of energy among policymakers. Fortunately, President-Elect Obama understands that, given the increasing challenges the world will face in energy policy in the coming years, there is a stringent need for a deeper understanding of the physical capabilities and limitations of all sources of energy. Beyond this, the Secretary of Energy will need to have the ability to effectively explain intricate technical information to policymakers – a skill not commonly found in the scientific community. There is hope that Chu will be able to articulate complex renewable energy technologies in a way that will convince Congress of the need to finance. 

This brings us to a concern already expressed across the media – Chu has, at best, limited political experience. While being a “Washington insider” was a detriment during the presidential campaign, a lack of appreciation for the complexity of the relationships on the Hill, in the White House and in the various agencies could be problematic. The nation is now in desperate need of a national energy policy – but can Chu stand up to the groups that have an interest in maintaining the status quo? There is hope that, with former EPA administrator Carol Browner rumored to head up the White House climate office, he would have some back-up on the political end.  

Chu’s appointment should also hearten those who fear that under Obama, climate interests will supersede economic interests in what is an already frail economy. Known for his realistic approaches to climate issues, he is an outspoken advocate for sustainable scientific solutions to climate change. By naming Chu, Obama shows he is also dead set on fulfilling his campaign goals for an energy economy and green jobs. Chu has the knowledge to realize the president’s agenda; in the past, he contributed to an influential National Academy of Sciences report linking economic efficiency to the energy agenda. 

Overall, Steven Chu’s nomination as Secretary of Energy would demonstrate President-Elect Obama’s commitment to making real progress on climate change. As a member of the Copenhagen Climate Council, Chu has pushed his staff at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to develop new climate models. He is said to be passionate about mitigating climate change and keenly aware of what it will take to do so. Most importantly, his colleagues attest that he is a gifted leader – someone who can inspire the Department of Energy to focus on the solutions to the demanding problems it will face in the coming years.

Erica McCarthy and Mihaela Carstei are assistant directors of the Energy and Environment Program at the Atlantic Council.