Restoring the climate is an engineering project


It’s too expensive. That is the response when I ask scientists, “Should we restore a healthy climate for our children?”

If you’re not a scientist, that answer sounds cruel, implying that there is something more important than investing in saving the planet for our children and grandchildren. In fact, we can restore the climate for our children, probably by the year 2050, for less than we now spend globally on the military.

Getting to “Let’s restore the climate” from “It’s too expensive to restore the climate” requires distinguishing the paradigms in which successful scientists work from engineering project management. With that we can shift the frame for climate work from science to engineering.

The scientific paradigm for discovery is incremental. It sounds like this: “Let’s demonstrate milestone A, and then design the experiment for milestone B. Then demonstrate B followed by the design for milestone C, etc.” There arguably is no other pathway to discover quarks or breakthrough batteries.  Scientific discovery is generally resource limited but time unlimited–discovery takes time.

Project management operates backwards: Define the intended final result carefully, and then work backwards from the end result to the present time to set start times and budgets for the required sub-projects. Essentially that means we define success for milestone C, then design C’s development process. Then define success for milestone  B, and then design B’s process, and so on, backwards to the present.  After the milestones are defined, we estimate the budget. Important engineering projects are time limited, with relatively unlimited resources, the opposite of scientific research.

Consider an oil refinery. It costs whatever it costs, and while the teams work to reduce costs, seldom is a refinery cancelled due to costs—it is so vital to the corporation’s success that the money will be found. However it might be cancelled if it’s too late—because alternatives are likely to show up making it unprofitable.

This distinction of paradigms became clear to me recently when a former Secretary of Energy said that he wasn’t considering restoring the climate because it’s too expensive. From a scientist’s view that makes perfect sense–restoring the climate is far more expensive than any previous scientific endeavor, therefore we should work on the projects we have resources for now. Nevertheless, as a parent I was aghast at that statement: How could he say that it’s not worth 1-10% of GDP to save the planet for our kids? That’s a fraction of what we spent to win WWII.  Is he crazy? No, he’s not crazy, he’s a scientist, and one of the best.

Operating inside the science paradigm, he decided sensibly to work next to improve electric vehicle batteries, since that would incrementally move us in the right direction towards reducing emissions. It won’t save the climate–only massive carbon dioxide removal can do that, but it’s important progress.

In the science paradigm we handle milestone A and then plan to handle milestone B–unless the project is cancelled first. With the collapsing of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the stalling of the Gulf Stream, and expectation of 7-30 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century, the project (saving civilization) may indeed get cancelled if we don’t treat restoring the climate as an urgent engineering project.

Note that WWII was largely an engineering project where the generals had good estimates for the resources needed to win, and got those resources. Similarly, we now have initial estimates for what it will take to restore the climate for our children, and we will raise those funds if we discuss the climate as an engineering project and start now.

We can restore the climate. Now is the time to shift climate work from the incremental scientific research project that climate deniers have insisted on since 1980, to the engineering project that we owe to our children. We will find the funds, just as we found funds to win WWII.



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