I love to hear someone say "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we ..." It used to be a more popular complaint, but at some point it became unfashionable, seen as a weak or irrelevant argument. Technical people especially seemed to roll their eyes when that expression came up.
But I've always liked it, because it gave me a chance to explain that we put a man on the moon through knowledge and research, and especially because we had a clear goal, good engineering and used a structured problem-solving approach - all things that happen too rarely when we're faced with problems. As an engineer, I'd like to see us tackle social and economic problems in the same way we attacked the problem of a manned lunar mission. But when the problem we're trying to solve crosses over into the scientific or engineering domain, there's no excuse for not taking an 'Apollo program' approach to developing a solution.
And we're faced with just that kind of problem now - climate change.
The Apollo program, which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20th, 1969, was iniitally announced by President Kennedy on May 25th, 1961 when he said:
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
In the phrase I've emphasized, JFK didn't shrink from the challenge or talk about incrementalism. He stated clearly and plainly that that the challenge he was issuing was both difficult and costly to achieve.
In fact Kennedy noted in a later speech:
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.
It's especially appropriate at this moment to look at the challenge of dealing with climate change from this perspective, because Monday night is Yuri's Night. On April 12th, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to go into outer space and orbit the earth (a later April 12th is also the anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch). Cmdr Alan Shepard was the first American in space less than a month later. About three weeks after Shepard's flight, Kennedy set our national goal.
And what were we able to accomplish? Less than 3000 days after JFK set the goal, we landed astronauts at Tranquility Base and returned them safely to earth - not many more than 3000 days after the first man entered space, and not many more than 4000 days after the Russians launched the first artificial satellite - Sputnik - and we launched our first satellite, Explorer; less than 4000 days after we even had a manned spaceflight program (Project Mercury), we landed our astronauts on the moon.
In less than 3000 days, we put together an expensive and complex program that ultimately involved over 20,000 companies and 400,000 employees - from engineers and scientists to aerospace workers and machinists, many unionized. The amount of technology spinoff from the program was also phenomenal - you're soaking in it - as was the impact on education from the Sputnik launch forward.
Kennedy also did one other thing in his announcement that needs to be done with respect to climate change. He set a clear and measurable goal: "... before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the earth". He included a difficult to meet time-frame and an unequivocal definition of success.
If you want to solve a complex problem with a good probability of success, you need to start with a clear and quantitative goal, or you have nothing to measure either possible solutions or achievement against. Even if you want incrementalism, you have know the destination you're traveling to step by step. Somebody, preferably someone with authority, needs to set a goal that "by the end of the decade, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere will be less than 390ppm" or whatever time-frame and target we agree will be tolerable.
Although the timing may be flexible, it can't be something 50 or 100 years out - we can't reduce atmospheric CO2 in the same way that so many wait for that other April date - April 15th - before filing their tax return. We need to withhold carbon every year, and we need a short time-frame for scientific reasons, to recognize the urgency of our need to fix this and to hold ourselves accountable for our progress or lack of progress. We need to have a number that says "this is what's tolerable, this is what success will mean", and it needs to be a number that scientifically is tolerable and indicates success.
Solving the climate problem won't be easy, but it isn't rocket science either. We know what causes the problem and we already know the criteria to use to measure possible solutions.
Another thing we didn't do with the Apollo program is allow Congress to determine that we would use a Saturn V booster, lunar and command modules, pick landing sites, or extend the Hyde Amendment to the moon. We tasked a technical and scientific agency - NASA - with handling the technical and scientific details.
We already have an environmental analog of NASA:
The EPA employs 17,000 people in headquarters program offices, 10 regional offices, and 27 laboratories across the country. More than half of its staff are engineers, scientists, and environmental protection specialists; other groups include legal, public affairs, financial, and computer specialists.
The agency conducts environmental assessment, research, and education. It has the primary responsibility for setting and enforcing national standards under a variety of environmental laws, in consultation with state, tribal, and local governments. It delegates some permitting, monitoring, and enforcement responsibility to U.S. states and Native American tribes. EPA enforcement powers include fines, sanctions, and other measures.
The agency also works with industries and all levels of government in a wide variety of voluntary pollution prevention programs and energy conservation efforts.
We can augment the EPA staff with more scientists and engineers, with lawyers and economists, with people who can educate the public, and whatever else the agency needs to get the job done. Or a strong executive could force inter-agency co-operation with agencies that have technical expertise or regulatory authority that EPA lacks.
In fact we don't even need a climate bill for EPA to do the job. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that EPA not only has the authority to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act - it actually has the duty to do it (Massachusetts v. EPA). Of course corporate interests are already hard at work trying to end this authority, and seem to be getting their way in the developing Senate climate bill. There's no need to blame Congress for inaction on this issue - the Executive Branch already has the authority it needs. You'd need 60 votes to take that authority away.
The Clean Air Act mechanisms have a proven track record of repairing the atmosphere and regulating industry. The act has been incrementally improved since the initial legislation was passed. It allows for state and regional flexibility, especially with respect to important contingencies like economics, but within a framework of scientifically derived standards and national oversight. Before you criticize it, you can read the law, beginning here.
As the situation stands right now, our approach to the urgent problems presented by climate change isn't anything like Project Apollo - it's just Project Appalling.
If we can put a man on the moon, we can solve the problems of climate change, but it requires leadership, clear goals, good engineering, and the will to get it done. It also requires us to do it while it's still possible.