Could a “moon shot” for climate change cool a warming planet?
Fifty years after humans first left bootprints in the lunar dust, it’s an enticing idea. The effort and the commitment of brainpower and money, and the glorious achievement itself, shine as an international example of what people can do when they set their minds to it. The spinoff technologies ended up affecting all our lives.
So why not do it all over again — but instead of going to another astronomical body and planting a flag, why not save our own planet? Why not face it with the kind of inspiration that President John F. Kennedy projected when he stood up at Rice University in 1962 and said “We choose to go to the moon,” and to do such things:
“ … not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …”
But Kennedy did not have to convince people that the moon existed. In our current political climate, the clear evidence that humans have generated greenhouse gases that are having a powerful effect on climate, and will have a greater effect into the future, has not moved the federal government to act with vigor. And a determined faction even argues that climate change is a hoax, as President Donald Trump has falsely stated at various times.
And the moon shot had a clearly defined goal: Land on the moon. A finish line for fighting climate change is less clear. Back to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? (We have already passed 412 parts per million.)
Still, it should come as no surprise that Kennedy’s stirring words and accomplishments have made the idea of a moon shot one of the most enduring metaphors for our time. Roger Launius, a retired NASA chief historian and author of a new book, “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings,” said that “moon shot” has become shorthand for “a big push,” and it’s almost become a trope: ‘We need a ‘project Apollo for name-the-big-thing-of-your-choice’.”
Climate change is certainly an urgent challenge. Rising levels of greenhouse gases are raising temperatures worldwide, leading to shifting weather patterns that are only expected to get worse, with increased flooding and heat waves, and drought and wildfires afflicting millions. The task of reversing that accumulation of greenhouse gases is vast, and progress is painfully slow.
The idea of a moon shot for climate has been gaining supporters. Beto O’Rourke and Kirsten Gillibrand use the idea in their presidential campaigns, as did Michael Bloomberg in unveiling his recently announced $500-million Beyond Carbon campaign. In a commencement speech this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he said, “It is time for all of us to accept that climate change is the challenge of our time.” He concluded, “It may be a moon shot — but it’s the only shot we’ve got.”
Does the enduring metaphor fit the task of countering the grinding destructiveness of a warming planet?
Climate presents more complicated issues than getting to the moon did, said John M. Logsdon, historian of the space program and founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
In 1970, Logsdon wrote a book, “The Decision to Go to the Moon,” that laid out four conditions that made Apollo possible. In the case of the space program, the stimulus was the first human spaceflight by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, which filled Americans with dread of losing the space race. In an interview, Logsdon said it has to be “a singular act that would force action, that you couldn’t ignore.” Other moon shot prerequisites, he said, include leaders in a position to direct the resources necessary to meet the goal on “a warlike basis,” with very deep national pockets — people like Kennedy, who began the program, and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who brought it to fruition.
Finally, Logsdon said, “the objective has to be technically feasible.” Scientists and engineers had told Kennedy that “there were no technical show stoppers in sending humans to the moon — it would just take a hell of a lot of engineering.”
What would be the “action-forcing stimulus” for a climate moon shot, he asked? He suggested it would have to be something deeply dramatic and immediate, like “Manhattan going under water.” What’s more, he noted, “Apollo did not require changing human behavior” as fighting climate change would, through the need for measures like carbon taxes or changes in consumption patterns.
One more important difference between sending people to the moon and solving a problem like climate change was cited in a recent editorial in the journal Nature, which noted that attempts to counter climate change have lobbyists fighting against them. The editorial said “for decades, energy corporations have stymied global efforts to make equitable reductions to greenhouse-gas emissions because such efforts would reduce their profits. Influential private companies are central to today’s Earth shots, but the historical moon shot approach will be ineffective if potential conflicts of interest are not addressed.”
Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, lauded the inspiration that the moon shot provided, but said she had a less sweeping example of a good comparison to the challenge ahead: fixing the ozone hole. It required international cooperation, detailed in the Montreal Protocol of 1987, and a concerted effort of nearly 200 countries to rid the world of the chlorofluorocarbons that were damaging our atmospheric protection. “There are bumps on that road, but largely the ozone hole is on the road to recovery because of actions that humans took,” she said.
Yet she treasures a necklace that re-creates the Apollo 11 trajectory from the Earth to the moon. “It’s incredibly nerdy,” she said, but it’s also a reminder of a national act that people think of “with nothing but goodwill.” And so, she said, comparing a climate push to the Apollo program makes a kind of sense. “Just because a metaphor is not exact,” she said, “doesn’t mean it’s not useful.”
If we did choose once again to do an important thing because it is hard, the task ahead would be more than technical, said Hal Harvey, chief executive of the research firm Energy Innovation. The deceptively simple goal, he said, should be to “decarbonize electricity, and then electrify everything.” That would involve building up renewable energy and dropping electrical generation from fossil fuel plants, and building up the use of technologies like heat pumps that can make home heating and cooling more efficient. China has invested heavily in electric buses, electric scooters, and other ways to stop burning fossil fuels. There are further advances in industrial processes and power systems engineering that will help, he said, ticking off a dizzying array of avenues that would allow society to reach those goals.
But mostly, he said, it will require a shift in national attitude: “The moon shot technology we need is political will.”