Moonshot or Pyramids?

Should the U.S. decide to pursue the Green New Deal, there are different approaches to take–but although one is probably optimal, we can expect to pursue two parallel tracks at different rates of speed.

One is brute force–we mandate (and probably finance) the environmental aspects of the GND, build out the needed solar and wind power generation, require a changeover to an electric fleet, and use regulation and legislation to push people into desired behaviors. We liken this to ancient Egyptians building the pyramids with slave labor, but then we’re harsh critics at times.

Because we need logarithmic increases in the deployment of solar, wind, electric vehicles, because we need dramatic decreases in power generation from fossil fuels, because we need homeowners and apartment landlords to install energy efficient appliances, windows, water heaters, etc., and perhaps most importantly because we need all Americans to adopt different attitudes and behaviors, the pyramid approach is likely to spur as much resistance as compliance.

Old fashioned football coaches and Army generals talk about ‘Winning the Day,’ where the focus is on short term goals. We would need this for the Pyramid approach, where in any given year we may need to double the installation of solar panels and wind turbines and the replacement of old-fashioned cars with electric ones. We can do this at first, but it gets harder each year and twelve years a slave to continuous improvement requires a lot of commitment to a cause that many Americans are more likely to salute in passing than internalize as a given. Winning the Day pretty intentionally gives short shrift to tomorrow–and long term goals can disappear when we’re dealing with short term pain.

But make no mistake about this–it would work, if we stuck to our guns. We do not need new technology to get emissions down to a net zero, nor do we need to abandon the necessities and conveniences of modern life. It will just be a tough and expensive twelve year period.

Another approach is what we call the Moonshot–where we assemble our best minds and task them with solving the problem using current and visibly reachable technology to find solutions that are not necessarily more elegant, but certainly more affordable and less disruptive than the Pyramid approach.

There are a number of areas that could be productively explored by such teams. One would be buying more time–although there is a reason climate scientists have a fairly hard stop at 12 years, sequestering CO2 emissions might extend that out to 15 or even 20 years, allowing the necessary infrastructure buildout to proceed at a less painful pace. The danger in extending the timeline is of course that some will treat it as a get out of jail free card, calling for unlimited extensions based on cherry picked data.

Another line of research would be improving the core technologies we’re depending on to get us to net zero emissions–better solar panels, better wind turbines, better batteries, better electric cars, etc.

The potential bonus is, if indeed we find new and applicable technology, we can provide it to the rest of the world.

Areas that could be explored in depth (and are in fact being looked at today) include the role of topsoil in drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere, genetic engineering of trees to hold more CO2, better and cheaper energy storage and more. (We’ll be discussing the ‘and more’ part quite a bit in later posts.)

Just as one example, there is very little chance of current technology enabling mass production of electrically powered commercial trucks. The batteries required to move them long distances are too expensive, weigh too much and take too much space. But that’s just the kind of issue that a Manhattan Project could tackle. And solving it would make a big difference–and not just for the trucking industry.

And of course, at some point on this blog, we will need to take an objective view of nuclear power, which is explicitly excluded from the Congressional resolution calling for a Green New Deal, but which we need to keep an eye on going forward. It would be far more palatable to the populations of almost every country if we could achieve our goals without nuclear power. But we may want to keep it on hand as a last ditch measure to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States currently spends a lot of money and funds a lot of scientists studying the causes, impacts and potential remedies for climate change. A Manhattan Project approach would shift the focus to funding mitigation pilot projects, think tanks and tech Tiger Teams to start dealing with it.

Lastly, should the political will be found to adopt the Green New Deal, there is no reason to limit ourselves to just one approach. We can start with the football coaches exhorting us to Win the Day, while behind the scenes the nerd brigade can be cogitating on a brilliant solution we can adopt at halftime.

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