Climate change is the crisis of our time. As the human race sleepwalks its way towards a planetary calamity, there is a growing recognition of the need for a “moonshot” aimed at addressing the greatest existential challenge we have ever faced. The immediate problem is that a solid technical basis for such a moonshot does not yet exist. There is no audacious U.S. national plan in place to deal with climate change, quite apart from what other countries must do.
What we must now do is to create a fully empowered national climate change agency, devoted exclusively to climate change, with a mandate to prepare the carefully thought-through technical basis for an audacious action plan and with the political clout to make an impact.
How A Moonshot Happens
What is often forgotten in the celebration of America’s space triumph of 1969 is that Kennedy’s speech of 1962, in which he inspired the nation to “go the moon by the end of the decade”, didn’t come out of the blue. In fact, the basis for it had already been laid in several distinct stages.
- Stage 1: Pre-1958: Several competing agencies were striving for ownership of the American space effort: space: Army, Navy, Air force; there was no coherent national strategy, game plan or budget.
- Stage 2: Creation of NASA in 1958: President Eisenhower established organizational clarity as to which agency was in charge of the space effort, but he didn’t create the necessary priority or budget for the effort to succeed. It did nevertheless create the institutional and intellectual platform which provided the basis for the next step.
- Stage 3: President Kennedy’s 1962 speech articulated a clear national commitment to get to the moon before the end of the decade.
- Stage 4: From 1962 to 1969, there was skillful maintenance and pursuit of the goal, through many difficulties, setbacks.
- Stage 5: In July 1969, as promised, American men landed on the moon—an unparalleled feat of perseverance and ingenuity.
By way of comparison, the U.S. response to climate change is still in Stage 1: there are many ideas and studies, but no coherent national strategy, game plan, expert or political consensus or budget. The White House doesn’t even see that there is an issue. There are organizations and agencies producing studies and reports, but no mandate or urgency for action.
Given the current administration, any major change in the situation will have to come in the next administration. Nevertheless, it is not too early to consider the necessary steps, beginning with a decision to take bold action.
Current Planning Is Inadequate
What’s happening now is sporadic, haphazard, ill-planned and tragically inadequate.
For example, as a sign of its commitment to climate change, Berkeley recently announced with pride that it has banned the use of natural gas in new low-rise buildings; this results in greater use of electricity generated by coal power plants with high pollution consequences.
Similarly, people may feel virtuous if they purchase electric cars, but the impact on climate change isn’t clear if the cars are also using electricity generated by coal. Flailing away at climate change with symbolic actions that feel good and sound good but make no impact isn’t going to get the job done.
Wind and solar are often presented as the keys to the future. Yet there is no coherent policy as to their future in the U.S. Wind and solar energy have few downsides per se but are not available 24 hours every day; Europe has found that dealing with the ups and downs of production can create practical problems.
A carbon tax is widely advocated by economists, yet the U.S. is one of the few large and industrialized nations that does not implement one. The basis for it is simple. Carbon emissions have an “unpriced” societal cost in terms of their harmful effects on the earth’s climate. A tax on carbon would reflect these costs and send a powerful price signal that would discourage carbon emissions. Such a tax could have regressive income effects, but they could be alleviated by the way the resulting revenues are allocated. Carbon tax has a diverse array of advocates including Rex Tillerson, when he was CEO of Exxonmobil, the American Enterprise Institute, the Earth Policy Institute, and the Sierra Club, and the Washington Environmental Council. Yet no carbon tax is in place in the U.S. and none is even being seriously discussed.
Having an institution that is capable of thinking through the multi-sectoral issues involved in assessing the trade-offs, the inter-connections and the sequencing of different options and pushing ahead to action is going to be central to having any kind of real impact. At this point, there is not a single official at the highest levels of U.S. government who can speak sensibly on the subject.
The technical complexity of the choices facing us were brought home to me in reading Paul Hawken’s interesting book,Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (2017). It examines and prioritizes 80 ready-now climate-changing ideas, and quantifies their potential impact, along with 20 ideas that might materialize in the future, including direct air capture, hydrogen-boron fusion, autonomous vehicles, solid-state wave energy and living buildings. The ideas are listed in this summary table, along with their potential impacts from a global perspective.