Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Manhattan Project For the Climate

We need a Manhattan Project for the climate.  That is a large, government led, well funded research and development effort to build technologies, techniques and policies that get global emissions at or below sustainable levels within 20 years.

Large government led programs have long proven to be an effective way for humanity to solve major problems and achieve otherwise unreachable goals.  We were worried the Nazis were going to build atomic weapons, and if they had got there first World War 2 would have ended very differently with far more loss of life, so we dedicated the resources, scientists and effort needed to get it done.  The US and USSR decided each separately that conquering space travel first was an important societal goal and both dedicated the resources needed to "win" - the USSR first put a man in orbit, the USA caught up to be the first to the moon.  Given what we know about the horrendous inefficiency and corruption of the Soviet system, their achievements are even more remarkable.  The Soyuz rocket remains the world's only means to get humans above low orbit.

Even now we can look at absurdly impoverished kleptocratic North Korea, not able to adequately feed its population and yet able to sustain nuclear and missile programs that have made the country an intercontinental nuclear power within 20 years, despite major sanctions and dedicated efforts of major world powers to stop them.  Their leaders decided these things were important and were able to have them done despite huge obstacles that wouldn't exist in a climate project.

In fact many of the most lasting or amazing achievements of human history have been government led projects:

  • Panama Canal
  • Suez Canal
  • Pyramids (both Egypt and central Americas)
  • The Great Wall of China
  • The Roman Coliseum
  • Eradication of Smallpox
  • Humans in space
  • Humans on the moon
  • International Space Station
  • Exploration of the Solar System
  • Global positioning system
  • The Internet
  • The Parthenon
  • Cross continental rail roads
  • The Large Hadron Collider

This doesn't mean everything government does is great (The Great Wall didn't really work very well from what I understand of the history but it is still a remarkable feat of engineering) but it does show that when vital societal interests are recognized, a government led mega project is very likely to succeed at achieving its objectives.  Whether those objectives are sensible is a different question, but solving the climate crisis is clearly a worthwhile goal.

It is time we recognize solving climate change as a vital interest to humanity and act through our most effective collective means, government, to address it at the level of urgency and focus it requires.  It doesn't mean everyone working on the problem needs to be a government employee, but that government is prepared to identify the problems needing solutions and fund major research that has promise of solving those problems.  We need energy systems that don't add greenhouse gases and massive increases in energy efficiency.  We need means to deploy these things widely and see them adopted worldwide.  We probably need means to speed up the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere, and prepare for the possibility that the Siberian permafrost will all melt.  Most of these things are not inherently profitable and no private actors will make significant attempts to address them. They represent a colossal tragedy of the commons, which can only be addressed collectively.

In the neoliberal era we are tempted to scoff at this, and insist that private research and efforts will be sufficient, or maybe government can help with tax credits or other nonsense.  We don't have time for that.  Those policies only nudge.  We need a push.  Whatever it costs, for however long it takes.  That was the mentality that allowed the Allies to win World War 2.  That's what is required today.

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