When President Kennedy declared in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade–he actually said we’d send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. A powerful campaign requires a good outcome.
A successful climate campaign takes us to a healthy climate. Imagine a world with a healthy climate. A world with stable forests, stable farmland, stable temperatures and stable sea level. Technically and financially we could achieve a healthy climate in a few decades. The whole moon program was just eight years. A healthy climate clearly requires new thinking, lots of innovation, and lots of manufacturing. It could be accomplished in 35 years. We don’t have to wait for a miracle technology.
A healthy climate is a stool with three legs. The legs are: 1) Energy transition from fossil fuels; 2) Carbon dioxide removal, and 3) Cooling the planet. Many people hope that cooling the planet is optional, but without it our extreme droughts, floods, fires, and climate refugees will only get worse.
What is new is this: All three legs are required for us to leave a healthy climate to our children. And we can do all three at a cost below what the world spends on fossil fuel now. No major new technology is required. A lot of testing, experimenting and development is required, but the technologies and financing is available. What’s needed is creativity and alignment.
You may be thinking that if it’s that simple, something must be missing. What is missing is people saying they want a healthy climate. Human creativity and cooperation can produce amazing results, but we need a compelling vision, just as the moon program started with “Send a man to the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.”
You can see that a healthy climate is possible by asking what would it cost to fulfill each of the three legs using today’s technology. To replace fossil fuel energy crudely with today’s best-in-class wind, solar and storage would cost about $45 trillion, about 1% of global GDP or income over 35 years (UN). That’s a fraction of the 6.5% of GDP that we spend on fossil fuels now. We could shift our spending to do that and we probably will. Remember that technology always gets cheaper and more efficient, while fossil fuels continually get more expensive as the easy to reach stuff is used up.
The second leg, removing carbon dioxide over 50 years would probably take three times more, or 3% of GDP, and would require the amount of energy produced by solar panels covering an area equal to that used by coal mines now. Some say we would use safe nuclear power instead. We have technology for concentrating CO2, converting it to alcohol, and then converting that into anything, including plastics. Those plastics could be used for construction, or just buried back in the coal mines where most of the carbon started originally. What’s needed is a good economic model that motivates the innovation required to make it efficient.
The third leg, cooling the planet, can be done by a number of cloud modification techniques. One technique mimics how volcanoes cool the planet, but does it safely and slowly. These techniques need testing to demonstrate doing it safely, but the cost is estimated at a tiny fraction of 1% of GDP.
The first step to a healthy climate is to declare that we want it, knowing that we could have it.
Oil companies and historians say it will take at least 70 years just for the energy transition leg. But we have the money and the technology to make history and do it faster. When enough people say they want a healthy climate, then economists will figure out a way to put people to work delivering on it. Then millions of engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs will work tirelessly to make it so.
The innovation all starts with wanting a healthy climate, and then committing to build all three legs of the stool. Without all three, it’s like sending a man to the moon…and leaving him there.