Casten, Argonne Scientist Draw SOTU Spotlight to Climate Change

February 12, 2020
In The News

A freshman congressman is using President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday to shine a spotlight on the need to address climate change by inviting along a veteran of the Manhattan Project who’s now working on solar energy.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove has decided to make Dieter Martin Gruen, a 97-year-old German Nazi refugee who went on to work on the World War II Manhattan Project and the U.S. nuclear naval fleet, his guest for the State of the Union in the nation’s capital Tuesday night. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Casten said, “It’s an opportunity to draw some attention to his career,” including a stint at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont. “It’s one of the perks of this office,” said Casten, who’s already nominated Gruen for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But Casten also granted that it’s an opportunity to present a climate scientist to the nation in a high-profile forum granted to one of the nation’s top science deniers, President Trump, saying, “Let’s shine a greater light on the urgency that is climate change and the desperate need to have people of good character who don’t deny science but see a challenge to rise up to — to say this is a challenge worth fighting, as opposed to something worth denying. And I think his career is a testament to that.”

Gruen immigrated to the United States from Nazi Germany as a teen in 1936 and went on to serve on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb at the University of Chicago and other sites. Later, he joined Adm. Hyman Rickover in developing the U.S. Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines, and he worked at Argonne. But Gruen said on the call that over the last decade he’s been working on solar energy in a bid to replace fossil fuels.

According to Gruen, the sun shines enough energy on the Earth in an hour to meet the electrical needs of all 7 billion people on the planet for a year, but current solar cells are converting only 15 to 20 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, where the theoretical maximum is 86 percent. “So we have a long way to go,” he said.

Gruen’s been using new materials for solar cells that tolerate higher temperatures and draw on concentrated sunlight, devices that could be used “on a very large scale,” he said. “It looks very promising that we will be able to do much better than we’re doing today with what’s being called single-junction solar cells.”

Scientists have warned that the planet has about 10 years to attempt to halt global warming due to greenhouse gases before climate change is irreversible, and Gruen said there’s still time to do it, but he added, “The time is now. We must do it now. We must do it quite rapidly. Yes, today, we can still reverse it. What it will be 20 years from now remains to be seen.

“It looks to me that things are moving more rapidly in the direction that demands we do something very quickly,” he added. “Having been at the beginning of my career working on the Manhattan Project, I know what this country can do when in a critical situation we are faced with having to do it. I saw that in a period of a year or so we were able to create in the Manhattan Project enough nuclear fuel — what all of us knew and most of us feel had to be done. I know what we can do when we focus our political will and attention and resources on a problem. … Having had the experience on the Manhattan Project, I’m very optimistic that if we can summon the political will that we will be successful in turning this thing around.”

Gruen praised Casten for leading the political battle with measures like the Climate Risk Disclosure Act he co-sponsored last year with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But Casten said the attack on climate change has to move beyond politics.

“I think frankly we do ourselves a disservice when we talk about this as a question of political will,” Casten said. “Yeah, now in (Congress) it does depress me that there are people in this body and in the White House who think the appropriate response to this moment is to deny or to delay. But, if we use that as an excuse for inaction, shame on us.”

Casten suggested everyone has a role in the fight, from those developing large-scale, super-efficient solar cells to individuals reducing energy use and their carbon footprint. “We just need to galvanize that action and leave the deniers behind.”

While Trump has used his presidential powers to roll back environmental regulations and amass an almost authoritarian authority with the compliance of the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, Gruen said it was a far cry from the horrors of Nazi Germany, and he dismissed drawing parallels between the two.

“They’re not at all comparable,” he said. “I do not see that this country would do the things that I and so many others experienced in Nazi Germany. There’s no comparison.