Our Next Moonshot: Saving Earth’s Climate
The Beyond Carbon initiative sets ambitious goals for switching to clean energy, and for building the political coalition necessary to do so.
The following is an adaptation of an address to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology class of 2019.
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.
Which is why today I’m announcing that, with Bloomberg Philanthropies, I am committing $500 million to launch a new national climate initiative, Beyond Carbon. Our goal is to move the U.S. toward a 100% clean energy economy as expeditiously as possible, beginning right now. We intend to succeed not by sacrificing things we need but by investing in things we want: more good jobs, cleaner air and water, cheaper power, more transportation options, and less congested roads.
To do it, we will defeat in the courts the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to roll back regulations that reduce carbon pollution and protect our air and water. But most of our battles will take place outside of Washington. We are going to take the fight to the states and cities — and directly to the people. And the fight will take place on four main fronts.
First: We will push states and utilities to phase out every last U.S. coal-fired power plant by 2030 — just 11 years from now.
Politicians keep making promises about climate change mitigation by the year 2050 — after they’re long gone and no one can hold them accountable. Meanwhile, the science keeps moving the possible inflection point of irreversible global warming ever closer. We have to set goals for the near-term, and hold our elected officials accountable for meeting them.
We know the power-plant goal is achievable — because we’re already more than halfway there. Through a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Sierra Club, we’ve shut down 289 coal-fired power plants since 2011. That includes 51 that we’ve retired since the 2016 presidential election — despite all the bluster from the White House.
Second: We will work to stop the construction of new gas plants. By the time they are built, they will be out of date because renewable energy will be cheaper.
Cities like Los Angeles are already stopping new gas plant construction in favor of renewable energy, and states like New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii and California are working to convert their electrical systems to 100% clean energy. We don’t want to replace one fossil fuel with another. We want to build a clean energy economy — and we will push more states to do that.
Third: We will support our most powerful allies — governors, mayors and legislators — in their pursuit of ambitious policies and laws, and we will empower the grassroots army of activists and environmental groups that are driving progress state-by-state.
Together, we will push for new incentives and mandates that increase renewable power, pollution-free buildings, waste-free industry, access to mass transit and sales of electric vehicles, which are now turning the combustion engine — and all of its pollution — into a relic of the industrial revolution.
Fourth, and finally: We will get deeply involved in elections across the country, because climate change is now first and foremost a political problem.
Now, I know that to scientists and engineers, politics can be a dirty word. I’m an engineer. I get it. But I’m also a realist. So at least for the foreseeable future, winning the battle against climate change will depend less on scientific advancement and more on political activism. That’s why this plan includes political spending that will mobilize voters to support candidates who are actually taking action on something that could end life on Earth as we know it.
At the same time, we will defeat at the voting booth those who try to block action and those who pander with rhetoric that just kicks the can down the road. Our message to elected officials will be simple: Face reality on climate change or face the music on Election Day.
Now, most of the U.S. will experience a net increase in jobs as we move to renewable energy sources and reductions in pollution. In some places jobs are being lost, and we cannot leave those communities behind.
For example, generations of miners powered America to greatness, and many paid for it with their lives. Today, they need our help to change with technology and the economy. Although it is up to the federal government to make those investments, we will continue our foundation’s work to support organizations in Appalachia and the Mountain West that are working to spur economic growth and retrain workers for jobs in growing industries.
Taken together, these four elements of Beyond Carbon will be the largest coordinated assault on the climate crisis that our country has ever undertaken.
Back in the ’60s, when scientists were racing to the moon, there was a popular saying that went: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Today, Washington is a very, very big part of the problem.
We have to be part of the solution through political activism that puts the screws to our elected officials. Let me reiterate: This has gone from a scientific challenge to a political one. It is time for all of us to recognize that climate change is the challenge of our time.
Graduates: We will need your minds and your creativity to achieve a clean energy future. But that is not all. We need your voices, we need your votes, and we need you to help lead us where Washington won’t.
It may be a moonshot — but it’s the only shot we’ve got.