Climate Crisis: Do We Need a Moonshot?

Here we all were, celebrating last weekend the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Along with 600 million other people, I watched it live on TV in July of 1969. Yup, folks, “we” did it! From takeoff of the moon program (when President Kennedy set out the goal), to successful landing (and return) of two men took less than seven years. Why can’t we do the same with decarbonizing the U.S. (and world) economy? Maybe by 2050, if not much sooner? Maybe by 2030, as suggested by proponents of the Green New Deal?

Do we need a “moonshot” mobilization to deal with the climate crisis? That’s the metaphor of the moment.

Do we need a “moonshot” mobilization to deal with the climate crisis? That’s the metaphor of the moment.

In last week’s New York Times, a column by John Schwartz laid out four reasons why and why not.

1.     There needs to be a stimulus, a singular act or event that forces action. You would think that July 2019, the hottest month in human history, would qualify as such a stimulus. You would think that the hottest temperatures in (take your pick) at least 2,000 years of recorded and studied human history (according to a new study this week) or the highest CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere in at least two million years would qualify.

2.     There need to be leaders in a position to direct the effort. In the U.S., there must be presidential leadership, which (no one disputes) is completely lacking now. The legislative leadership is currently lacking as well, in both the House (see Pelosi’s dissing of the Green New Deal) and Senate. The lengthy presidential campaign guarantees there will be no action for at least two more years. (Sorry, dear Earth, but you’ll have to wait until we Americans resolve our differences.)

3.     The goal must be technically feasible. In the case of the moon landings, there was a lot of science and engineering involved, but nothing impossible. If you reflect that the Apollo lander had less computing strength than your mobile phone or your car, you would probably bet that in the next 20 years we could decarbonize the economy quite easily. The main barrier: it would cost a lot of money and leave trillions of dollars in fossil fuel-related assets stranded. Paying off the “losers” will be a monumental task.

Getting to the moon required us to INVENT our way there. The physics didn’t change, but technology evolved rapidly to deal with many diverse, interrelated problems.

Getting to the moon required us to INVENT our way there. The physics didn’t change, but technology evolved rapidly to deal with many diverse, interrelated problems.

4.     In the case of the Apollo missions, required changes in human behavior were minor or nonexistent. We just used the existing “bro” culture and military mindset of much of the population during the Cold War. The Climate Crisis will force collective action over decades, something the world hasn’t ever done except in fighting infectious diseases and preventing epidemics from spreading.

Maybe there’s something there that can we can learn, not from NASA but from the World Health Organization (WHO). We know how to stop epidemics and we know pretty much for certain that global warming will lead to rapid spread of pests and diseases, so why shouldn’t we look on climate change as a massive public health problem and mobilize our political and economic resources to deal with it by taking pages from WHO’s playbook?

We know how to deal with potential epidemics. Why can’t we use a health crisis approach to deal with climate change?

We know how to deal with potential epidemics. Why can’t we use a health crisis approach to deal with climate change?

That would make opponents of climate action look like “never vaxxers” who oppose vaccinating kids en masse, based on spurious science and fear-mongering about autism. Yes, it’s true we do have to change our “way of life” in many ways, some dramatic, some subtle, but we don’t have to fear what that might look like. After all, Americans have been changing their “way of life” continuously for 250 years.

This is not as far-fetched as the idea seems. Thirty years ago, with the Montreal Protocol, the entire world acted to patch the hole in the ozone layer, by banning ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). That program worked; it was based on sound science and a confidence that science and technology could find good substitutes for CFCs, which they did.

The Climate Crisis as a health emergency? Maybe it’s time to think this way.