“Moon Shots” Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis

“Moon Shots” Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Solving the climate problem has been likened to a moon shot. Many say that what we need to solve it is a massive international effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Rumor has it that President Biden will soon announce just such a major effort to tackle climate – something on the order of the Manhattan Project to construct the first atomic bomb. But would it work?

Although comparison with such large ventures is meant to convey the scale of the problem and the response needed, exact comparisons are unhelpful.

Eager to prevent Hitler’s Germany from acquiring an atomic bomb and seeking a way to end the war in the Pacific, the U.S., with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada, pulled together a monumental effort to develop an atomic bomb. It began slowly in 1939 but expanded to include more than 130,000 people, at a cost of nearly $23 billion in 2019 dollars. Only about 10% of this sum was spent on nuclear research and development; most of it was used building factories and facilities as well as to produce fissile material. The project’s historical influence is undeniable: America got the bomb, and eventually we got commercial nuclear power, too.

Going to the moon was even more expensive – about $154 billion in today’s money – and at its height, the project occupied nearly 400,000 people. For that, the U.S. got to the moon before the Soviet Union and gained immense international prestige. America gave its high-tech industries a boost and learned valuable lessons about the management of large technical projects. On the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, President George H. W. Bush called the project the best return on an investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought a sketch pad.

Apollo was not to last. Even as man’s first footprint was being laid on the moon, President Richard Nixon and senior Republican politicians were looking beyond it. To the astronauts and NASA, the way forward was clear – more moon flights, leading to a base, a new spacecraft, a space station, and a decade or so hence, a voyage to Mars. But they and NASA were taking too much for granted and not thinking politically. After the moon had been gained, politicians moved on.

The government did not want more Apollos, and surveys indicated that voters didn’t, either. More earthly targets became the focus, and soon a commonly heard phrase went, “a nation that can land a man on the Moon can…” Curing cancer, for example, was one key objective. Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971 as part of a national effort against the disease.

Cancer did not succumb to brute-force engineering as the moon did. Our understanding of biology and genetics was too poor and the puzzle far more difficult than building rockets and navigating them through space.

Most recently, we have had Boris Johnson’s “Operation Moon Shot,” Donald Trump’s “Project Warp Speed,” and Microsoft CEO Brad Smith’s climate “moon shot” to make the company carbon neutral and eventually compensate for all its carbon emissions since its inception in 1975. Ambitious public projects still seek the imprimatur of walking on the moon.

The Manhattan Project and Apollo added new technologies and industries without wiping out old ones. The push to reach net-zero carbon emissions, however, will not be like that. It will be far more disruptive and costly – and nobody knows how much. Is it a global project or a local one? A clue to the answer may be found in the case of nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fusion offers the prospect of vast amounts of power, but a longstanding joke persists about its development: fusion energy is about thirty years away . . . and always will be. Fusion energy’s engineering challenges have so far proved insurmountable over 60 years.

Recently, the traditional big-project momentum of fusion research has been disrupted. Over the past several years, more than two dozen research groups – well-staffed and well-funded start-ups, university programs, and corporate projects – have achieved significant progress in controlled fusion based on radically different designs that challenge mainstream approaches.

Some expect fusion milestones within the next five years, including attaining the breakeven point at which the energy produced surpasses the energy used to start the reaction. Many of these new approaches will fail, but it only takes one to succeed.

It’s happened before. In 1984, U.S. scientists announced the goal of sequencing the human genome – our genetic blueprint. The project was completed in 2001 at a cost, in today’s dollars, of $5 billion. It was also achieved by a private company, Celera Genomics, that did it both faster and cheaper.

Moon shot projects are great banners behind which groups of nations, or indeed the whole world, can unite and feel that their combined resources will make something happen. It happened in the past, but these days private companies make multinationals look slow. Fifty years after Apollo, private companies are planning trips of their own to the moon.


Dr. David Whitehouse is a scientist, writer, and broadcaster.

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