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Our Next Moonshot: Saving Earth’s Climate

Our Next Moonshot: Saving Earth’s Climate

Monday, 10 June, 2019 - 07:30

Fifty years ago next month, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the moon. It’s fair to say the crew never would have gotten there without MIT.

I don’t say that just because Buzz Aldrin was class of ’63. The Apollo program literally got there thanks to its navigation and control systems, which were designed right here.

Successfully putting a man on the moon required solving so many complex problems. How to physically guide a spacecraft on a half-million-mile journey was arguably the biggest one. Your fellow alums and professors solved it, by building a 1-cubic-foot computer — at a time when computers were giant machines that filled whole rooms.

The only reason those MIT engineers even tried to build that computer was that they had been asked to help do something that most people thought was either impossible or unnecessary.

Going to the moon was not a popular idea in the 1960s. And Congress didn’t want to pay for it. President John F. Kennedy needed to convince taxpayers that a manned mission to the moon was possible — and worth doing.

So in 1962, he delivered a speech that inspired the country. He said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

In that one sentence, Kennedy summed up mankind’s inherent need to reach for the stars. He continued by saying: “That challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” In other words: For the good of the United States, and humanity, it had to be done.

And he was right. Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, the U.S. won a major Cold War victory, and a decade of scientific innovation led to an unprecedented era of technological advancement. The inventions that emerged from that moonshot changed the world: satellite television, computer microchips, CAT scan machines — even video-game joysticks.

The world we live in today is fundamentally different, not just because we landed on the moon but also because we tried to get there in the first place. In hindsight, President Kennedy called for the original moonshot at exactly the right moment in history. And the brightest minds delivered.

Today, I believe that we are living in a similar moment. But this time, our most important and pressing mission is not to explore deep space. It’s to save our planet, the one we’re living on, from climate change. And unlike 1962, the primary challenge is not scientific or technological. It’s political.

The fact is: We’ve already pioneered the technology to tackle climate change. We know how to power buildings using the sun and wind; how to power vehicles using batteries charged with renewable energy; how to power factories and industry using hydrogen and fuel cells. And we know that these innovations don’t require us to sacrifice financially or economically. Just the opposite: Those investments, on balance, create jobs and save money.

Yes, all of those power sources need to be brought to scale — and that will require further scientific innovation. But the question isn’t, “How do we tackle climate change?” The question is, “Why the hell are we moving so slowly?”

We are in a race against time — and we are losing. With each passing year, it becomes clearer just how far behind we’ve fallen, how fast the situation is deteriorating, and how tragic the results can be.

In the past decade alone, we’ve seen historic hurricanes devastate islands across the Caribbean. We’ve seen “thousand-year floods” hit the Midwestern and Southern U.S. multiple times. We’ve seen record-breaking wildfires ravage California and record-breaking typhoons kill thousands in the Philippines.

This is a true crisis. If we fail to rise to the occasion, your generation — and your children and grandchildren — will pay a terrible price.

Scientists know there can be no delay in taking action — and many governments and political leaders around the world are starting to understand that. Yet here in the U.S., our federal government is seeking to become the only country in the world to withdraw from the Paris Agreement to combat climate change.

The only one. Not even North Korea is doing that.

Those in Washington who deny the science of climate change are no more based in reality than those who believe the moon landing was faked. And while the moon landing conspiracy theorists are relegated to the paranoid corners of talk radio, climate skeptics occupy the highest positions of power in government.

Now, in the administration’s defense, climate change is only a theory, they say.

Like gravity is only a theory. People can ignore gravity at their own risk, at least until they hit the ground. But when they ignore the climate crisis, they not only put themselves at risk, they endanger all of humanity.

Instead of challenging Americans to believe in our ability to master the universe, as President Kennedy did, the current administration is pandering to the skeptics who, in the 1960s, looked at the space program and saw only short-term costs, not long-term benefits.

President Kennedy’s era earned the nickname, “The Greatest Generation” — not only because they persevered through the Great Depression, and won the Second World War. They earned it because of their determination to rise, to innovate and to fulfill the promise of American freedom.

They dreamed in moonshots. They reached for the stars. And they began to redeem — through the civil-rights movement — the failures of the past. They set the standard for leadership and service to our nation’s ideals.

Now, your generation has the opportunity to join them in the history books. The challenge that lies before you — stopping climate change — is unlike any other ever faced by humankind. If left unchecked, the crisis threatens to breed war by spreading drought and hunger. It threatens to destroy oceanic life, sink coastal communities, devastate farms and businesses, and spread disease.

Now, some people will say: We should leave it in God’s hands. But most religious leaders disagree. After all: Where in the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran, or any other book about faith or philosophy, does it teach that we should do things that make floods and fires and plagues more severe?

Thankfully, most Americans in both parties accept that human activity is driving the climate crisis. And they want government to take action. Over the past few months, there has been a healthy debate — mostly within the Democratic Party — over what those actions should be. In the year ahead, we need to build consensus around comprehensive and ambitious federal policies that the next Congress should pass.

But everyone who is concerned about the climate crisis should also be able to agree on two realities.

The first one is: Given opposition in the Senate and White House, there is virtually no chance of passing such policies before 2021.

And the second reality is: We can’t wait to act. Mother Nature does not wait on the election calendar — and neither can we.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP

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