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Moonshots, NASA, and Climate Change

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Disclaimer:  The viewpoints in this article are the personal views of the author and in no way are meant to imply or represent those of the company he works for.

 “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.” President John Kennedy, 1962

I grew up in a time where I was truly proud to be an American.  I felt blessed that I was lucky enough to be born here and be part of the greatest society in history.  In fact, I would say every American citizen I knew felt the exact same way.  We were the lucky ones.

That American pride and enthusiasm is not at the same levels today.  I know that will get some reaction, but if you lived during the moon race, you know what I mean.  Our country was “all-in”, united around the challenge of beating the Russians and the rest of the world to the moon.  The world watched us and rooted for us in constant amazement and perhaps even envy.  We knew the astronauts and the supporting mission control specialist cast.  They were our front line heroes demonstrating their courage and brains to solve “hard things” for the greater good.  Engineering, science, and the collective will of a country and its people stepping up to meet the challenge.

Today we face an even bigger challenge, with another moonshot opportunity to experience the same level of American pride and focused attention to solve problems that are not easy, but really hard.  Climate concerns have been delegitimatized, and climate activists have been unjustly labeled as “the left”, uninformed, or just “kooks”.  We have allowed skeptics to water down the term global warming to “climate change”.  Make no mistake, our planet is heating up, and it is having a devastating effect on every life form on earth.  In fact, 2015-2018 are the four hottest years in recorded history.

Speaking of moonshot opportunities and science, I decided to look at the organization that led us through those proud years of American greatness and race-to-the-moon leadership.  NASA provides the following information on climate change:[1]

Statistic

Change

Note

Global Temperature

1.9ºF

Since 1880

Sea Level Rise

3.3 mm per year

8 inches in last century and accelerating

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

412 mm

Highest amount in 800k years

Ice sheets

413 gigatonnes

Annual loss has tripled in last decade

Ocean Temperature

0.4ºF

Since 1969

Ocean Acidity

30%

Since Industrial Revolution

 

Figure 1:  Historic and Recent Atmospheric CO2 Level

Figure 2:  Historic and Recent Global Temperature Change

Figure 3:  Global Thermal Temperature Difference Map 1980 and 2018

Figure 4:  Melting of Greenland Ice Sheet Will Result in 6 Meter (19.7 Ft) Sea Level Rise

According to NASA, “Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by more than a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived "forcing" of climate change.”[2]  These are American engineers and scientists with a history of problem solving – and even sent men to the moon when many said it couldn’t be done.

I fully expect a few people to disagree with my belief that we are experiencing a global crisis, that climate change is real, and that we must act now.  But, most Americans do agree with me and do believe.  Yale’s 2018 climate change survey showed that 70% of Americans believe climate change is happening, and 58% believe it is caused mostly by humans.[3] The skeptics are now outnumbered, and we are seeing a quickly-growing global “call to action”.  Yet, this effort is NOT led by the United States.  For some reason, the topic of climate change is a political lightning rod with many Americans lining up behind party platforms rather than science.  But, the tide has turned as the US witnesses the evidence ourselves with stronger storms, unbearable heat, melting ice sheets, and devastating fires.  When has the US ever had 70% agreement on anything?  Well, maybe the last time was the race to the moon.  Certainly nothing recent springs to mind.

It is sad when a 16 year old child from Sweden (Greta Thunberg) comes to the US and scolds Congress stating, “I don’t want you to listen to me.  I want you to listen to the scientists . . . And I want you to take action.”  Thank you, Greta, for your great courage and passion.  We need it.  The youth of today care about this, and so do most adults.  Yet, the US sits idly by watching the rest of the world, while politicians bicker and grandstand in Congress and at debates.  It’s both disappointing and troubling.

 Despite that lack of political will, we are making progress.  The electric power industry is quickly adopting renewable energy, operating more efficiently, and retiring bulk generation fossil fuel plants.  Yet, the three single largest contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US today are coal plants in Alabama, Indiana, and Michigan.[4]  Within the United States, the electric power industry is responsible for 28% of GHG emissions, with transportation at 29%.[5]  And, as transportation electrification evolves, our industry has a real opportunity to make an enormous impact on GHG emissions and “bend the curve” on atmospheric carbon and atmospheric methane emissions.[6]

What is the missing piece in getting the US to step up to its rightful position leading the world in the fight against climate change?  It’s the leadership itself.  We need our own Greta Thunberg, Martin Luther King, or John Kennedy to mobilize the American people into a focused purpose and solve the hard problems with engineering, science, and good old American innovation.  And, maybe we look again to our friends at NASA to drive the science, work with other government bureaucracies, industries, and philanthropical organizations to “choose to go to the moon” once again.  It won’t be easy, it will be hard.  But, we must start listening to the scientists and become proud and unified Americans again.  Because AMERICA is at its greatest when it leads - and the WORLD is a better place when it does.

I finish this article by noting that President Trump unexpectedly showed up at a United Nations climate change summit today.  A climate change global “walkout” occurred on Friday, September 20, 2019 with an estimated 4 million people striking worldwide. New York City schools excused the city’s 1.1 million students from class to participate.  The media has picked up on the American peoples’ concern and frustration with the lack of leadership.  The momentum is growing, and whether climate change is real or not is not the question and debate in American homes and businesses anymore.  Instead, the questions Americans are asking are:  Who will step up and lead?  And, when will we act?

 


[1] https://climate.nasa.gov/, NASA, 2019

[2] https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/, Carbon dioxide discussion, NASA Global Climate Change, 2019

[3] https://e360.yale.edu/digest/americans-who-accept-climate-change-outnumber-those-who-dont-5-to-1, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, April 2018

[4] https://ghgdata.epa.gov/ghgp/main.do, EPA, 2019

[5] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions, EPA, 2019

[6] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5 report states that we have only ten years to bend the curve on atmospheric carbon and methane emissions, 2018

Stuart McCafferty's picture

Thank Stuart for the Post!

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Discussions

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Sep 23, 2019 6:36 pm GMT

Stu, the NASA numbers you provide are undeniable evidence of the changes taking place all around planet Earth. The numbers are what they are - there is no debating the accuracy of the data nor the credibility of the source of this data, NASA. What's needed now is a willingness to work together on a common mission: to provide a solution that will ensure reliable, safe, clean (emissions free), and cost effective energy across the planet.

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Stuart McCafferty on Sep 23, 2019 6:51 pm GMT

Amen, brother!  Science is science.  We need to stop attacking the credibility of scientists and start working the problem.  We need leadership that represents the people.

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Sep 23, 2019 7:54 pm GMT
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 23, 2019 9:25 pm GMT

What is the missing piece in getting the US to step up to its rightful position leading the world in the fight against climate change?  It’s the leadership itself

This is too true. The skeptic in me thinks that some of the politicians in power who push climate denialism don't even really believe it, but know that sowing those seeds of doubt are the ways to help deliver to their constituents/donors who don't want the inconvenience of the solutions that climate change dictates. Doing what's hard takes leadership, and too much power is held by people exhibiting whatever it is you want to call the opposite of leadership

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Stuart McCafferty on Sep 24, 2019 12:32 pm GMT

We had the UN in NYC yesterday talking about climate change.  And, on the same day we announce $56M in DOE grants for coal research.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 24, 2019 1:34 pm GMT

How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just 'business as usual' and some technical solutions? With today's emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.

There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

Wise words from the UN Climate Summit-- words definitely not being fully heeded...

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