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More than a Moonshot

Why Solving Climate Change is Harder than Putting a Man on the Moon

Apollo 10 Earthrise

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong proclaimed that he was taking “one giant leap for mankind” as he became the first human being to walk on the surface of the moon. That pioneering lunar stroll required a decade-spanning scientific effort, still considered one of humanity’s greatest achievements. The moon landing is so revered as a technological endeavor that the term “moonshot” is now common parlance for any ambitious technology challenge. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has a whole division referred to as its “Moonshot Factory.”

The idea of a moonshot has also entered rhetoric around climate change. Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and billionaire-politician Michael Bloomberg have all used the word to describe what’s needed to prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable.

They should think bigger.

“Moonshot” is an extreme understatement for what’s necessary to address climate change. That’s not to discount the brilliant and diligent work that went into the moon mission. The difference is that climate change is a far more complex challenge. It’s what some experts call a “super wicked problem.” There are three main reasons why addressing climate change in the 21st century is far harder than reaching the moon in the 1960s.

There is no clear route to success

While the science behind Apollo 11 wasn’t simple—it was literally rocket science—the overall objective was relatively straightforward: send a few guys from Point A (Earth) to Point B (the Moon) and get them back alive. Success was easy to define. The astronauts planted a flag, collected some dust, and returned home in one piece.

Stopping climate change has no equivalently focused vision of success. The Paris Agreement sets a target to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (or even 1.5 degrees), but no single action will make that happen. The countries of the world have submitted hundreds, if not thousands, of actions that they plan to take to keep the planet from heating more than two degrees; and even if they execute all those actions as planned, they’re projected to fall short of the Paris target.

Project Drawdown describes dozens of solutions that could make a dent in stopping climate change, and most of them are tougher on their own than landing on the moon. Broadly, these ideas include switching to renewable forms of energy, reforming land management, improving agriculture, making buildings more efficient, recycling materials, and slowing population growth. All these solutions involve large-scale shifts from how things were done in the past, which leads to the next key difference.

Entire systems need to change.

The moon landing may have been a symbolic “giant leap” for human progress, but it had few tangible impacts on US society. Landing on the moon was an inspiring and dramatic moment (as well as a powerful Cold War political statement), and it also produced some valuable innovations that are still with us today. However, once it was done, the astronauts, engineers, and spectators resumed their lives as normal. Between 1969 and 1972, only twelve people walked on the moon, out of the almost 4 billion people alive at that time.

Solving climate change is a bit like sending billions of people too the moon all at once. It requires deep, systemic change in the ways that human society produces and uses energy, food, and consumer goods. It will require a re-thinking of how we design buildings, cities, and economies. The changes might not be as disruptive as critics claim, like those in the US who worry that the Green New Deal will lead to a ban on hamburgers—for the record, it won't—but business as usual is not compatible with a functional climate. That’s where the last major challenge comes in.

There’s strong opposition.

The moon landing was far from universally popular. Civil Rights leaders protested the launch in July 1969, arguing that similar attention and funds should be directed towards solving poverty and racism. Polling shows that American public opinion was split for decades as to whether the Apollo missions were worth the substantial cost that went into them. However, the opposition didn’t come close to stopping the mission, and it didn’t create paralysis and discord within government.

The opposition to climate change is a different story, particularly in the United States. Many people don’t just oppose climate action; they deny that climate change is a threat. Those views extend to the highest levels of the federal government, and they’ve stymied policy for decades. Climate denial is complex, but a key piece of the issue is that many people benefit from the status quo, in the short term at least. Addressing climate change threatens business models rooted in a fossil fuel economy. It threatens ways of life, and that leads to vehement opposition. As a result, solving climate change is not just a technological challenge. In fact, much of the technology is already available. It’s a political challenge as well.

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The moon landing was an impressive moment, but we now live in a different world, both socially and geophysically.  Since 1969, we’ve added an additional four billion people to the planet, and we’ve cranked up global temperatures about 0.5°C warmer. In this changed biosphere, there’s one more key difference, one that may actually make solving climate change easier than putting a person on the moon: the fate of the planet did not depend on the Apollo 11 mission, but it does depend on addressing the climate crisis. What could be a stronger incentive for action than the continued existence of humankind?

The word “moonshot” is too small to describe the giant leap that’s needed today. We need another metaphor. The activist Bill McKibben equates climate action with a war effort: a marshalling of resources and restructuring of the economy to achieve a common purpose. That metaphor invites other critiques, but it better captures the scope, scale, and complexity of the challenge.

Maybe it’s best to scratch metaphors and accept solving climate change for the unparalleled undertaking that it is. Maybe we can imagine a time 50 years from now when the crisis is under control. Maybe in 2069, when politicians and companies set bold, ambitious goals for solving complex problems, they will call those goals “climate shots.”