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 of 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 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 President 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.”