Our 21st Century Moonshot: Climate Restoration

Sixty years ago, then President John F. Kennedy, Jr. gave a speech to an enthusiastic audience of roughly 35,000 on a steamy summer day in Houston, Texas. You might recognize the most famous phrase from this 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.”

In 1962, American pride was at stake. It was a race to the moon, and our opponent was the Soviet Union. When our president at the time stepped up to the podium that day, there was no playbook to land a spacecraft on the moon and return its crew safely back to earth. Yet JFK Jr. declared to the American people that we would walk on the moon before the end of the decade.

I imagine President Kennedy’s advisors, like anxious company accountants on the eve of a risky financial move, reacting with cautious skepticism, perhaps even shock and disbelief. “Uh, Mr. President… we haven’t the slightest clue how to do that. We’ve only sent chimpanzees and squirrel monkeys anywhere near the moon, sir.”

Fortunately there were bright, motivated people who chose to focus on the feasibility rather than the improbability of the Apollo program. A remarkable feat given how much easier it is to look for reasons an idea won’t work than it is to actually believe in it, and do the work to bring it to fruition.

JFK Jr.’s declaration created a new future, requiring people of all skills, backgrounds, and opinions to come together around a common goal. His words ignited the spirit and called on the brilliance of men and women who took ownership of that declaration, making possible one of the brightest moments in American history.

Less than seven years after Kennedy’s speech on that sweltering Texas afternoon, Neil Armstrong took the, “Giant leap for mankind” onto the surface of the moon.

60 years later, the difference is that the stakes of coming together around a shared goal are much higher. At stake today is the quality of life for our children, grandchildren, and future generations.

Corals, polar bears, and most every other animal you can think of don’t have the capacity to adapt as rapidly as we can to a warming climate. Their fate is in our hands.

Climate restoration – a movement to capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and restore a climate that has been proven to support life over the long-term – is our modern day moonshot.

What it means to “restore” our climate and why it matters

I interviewed Peter Fiekowsky, Founder and Chairman of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, which invests in technologies to help remove carbon dioxide (Co2) and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Peter is an engineer and philanthropist who holds a physics degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and over 20 patents. He’s also a brilliant climate scientist. One thing you’ll notice about Peter is that he doesn’t talk much about reducing carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions.

In a world where “net zero” seems to be a hot topic, why not focus on emissions reduction? “Legacy” emissions, Peter points out, are those emissions that are already in the atmosphere. So even as we reduce emissions, we’re still emitting, and these emissions hang around. For a long time. Carbon dioxide, for example, remains in our atmosphere anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years.

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As a physicist who’s been studying climate change for decades, Peter gets that focusing only on reducing emissions is like rearranging deck chairs on the sinking Titanic. It won’t make a big enough dent in order to restore a climate that has been proven to support the vast majority of species over the long-term. Reducing emissions can certainly be part of the solution, and is cause for optimism that we’re moving in the right direction. But with the highest levels of Co2 in the atmosphere in the last 800,000 years, this alone won’t get us where we need to be.

One of the initiatives Peter is at work on is a partnership with other climate scientists called Methane Action. In our conversation, Peter and I discussed a brilliant but simple solution to oxidize methane. This particularly problematic greenhouse gas is 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

To learn more, visit https://foundationforclimaterestoration.org/resources/white-paper/.

If Peter and his mates working on methane reduction can successfully double methane oxidation, it means that our atmosphere can revert to levels of methane roughly equivalent to what we had in 2005. Why is this significant?

Before 2005, colossal weather events were more the exception than the norm. Since then, category 5 hurricanes have increased in frequency, with 12 recorded since 2005, compared to just 6 in the 20 years prior.

2005 also preceded some of the most destructive wildfires in recorded history, such as Paradise, California (2018) and the bushfires that killed or injured three billion animals in Australia (2019-20).

Since 2008, we’ve also lost 14% of coral reefs worldwide due to rising sea temperatures. Just this year, scientists confirmed that 654 of 719 reefs that comprise the Great Barrier Reef (91%) showed signs of bleaching. When corals are stressed by higher than normal ocean temperatures, they expel their food source (algae) and can starve and die, leaving nothing left but the ghostly white of their skeletons.

Though Methane Actions’ solutions and almost a dozen other climate restoration technologies have been proven to be effective solutions to a warming climate, we haven’t yet implemented them. Why?

Our Paradigm

The critical question that shapes climate policy and our response to it, is this: what is our paradigm? In other words, what do we believe is actually possible when we consider our response to climate change?

The prevailing paradigm is that this problem is too large to tackle. Our typical response is, “I’m just one person, what can I possibly do?” This is easy to understand, given that to date the political will has not been mobilized, and plenty of evidence to suggest that the mighty machine of industry values the status quo.

Individuals are easily overwhelmed by the enormity of changes needed. The thing is, many of us actually want to do something. This is why I’m here to share my conversation with Peter.

Let’s look at the common denominator in every discussion about climate change, and the source of the actions taken, or not taken. This is, quite simply, human nature.

Kicking the Can down the Road

In 1979, Rafe Pomerance, pouring through a dense government document, inconspicuously named EPA-600/7-78-019, found a paragraph which didn’t jive with the rest of the report. The ‘coal report’ section of this publication suggested that the continued use of fossil fuels could bring about “significant and damaging” changes to the atmosphere within two to three decades.

Bewildered, he wondered why no one else was talking about this.

In another report, “The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate,” a group of advisors called the Jasons stated that if these conditions were to continue or worsen, it would “trigger a series of chain-reaction events.” Among those events, an increase of (on average) 2-3 degrees Celsius, Dust Bowl conditions that would “threaten large areas of North America, Asia, and Africa,” not to mention access to drinking water and agricultural production would fall, triggering mass migration of epic proportions.

There was an executive report from the Science Advisory Committee to the White House (1965) that warned of rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas, increased acidity of fresh waters, highlighting the urgency of a coordinated global effort in order to address. The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone, Pomerance learned, would be enough to cause oceans to rise an average of 16 feet.

Then there was a classified report issued by the C.I.A. (1974) on “the carbon dioxide problem” stating that climate change had begun around 1960 and had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.” The economic and political impacts were likely to be “almost beyond comprehension.”

Do you see the pattern? It’s not for lack of scientific proof, or warnings, that we find ourselves in our current situation. To this point, we’ve largely just kicked the can down the road for someone else to deal with it.

Human Nature & Social License

Today, four decades after Rafe Pomerance stumbled upon the oddball paragraph in the EPA report, most widely publicized climate-related news is just not pretty, especially regarding projections for the future. Perhaps “demoralizing” is more accurate.

As Peter points out, though, if we focus just on the extent of impending disaster and trying to avoid catastrophe… the paradigm in which we’re intending to have constructive conversations is shaped by disaster and catastrophe.

We need to be moved, inspired and motivated to act. If the paradigm in which we’re exploring our climate goals is characterized by the severity of catastrophe we’re heading towards, who really wants to roll their sleeves up and dive into that?

In a culture plagued by the allure of instant gratification, it’s simply human nature that most of us will look the other way when the subject seems too complex.

Believing that there are many people who would do more about climate change if they just knew what to do, I asked Peter what the average person can do about climate change.

“The goal is to get people saying, ‘We are going to restore the climate.” I Imagine, “We will go to the moon,” seemed no less far-fetched in 1962 than saying that we’re going to restore our climate in 2022. But JFK Jr.’s declaration created a sort of social license, or implied approval, for people to begin talking about going to the moon. And this is well before we knew how we were going to do it.

How will future generations of humans, plants, and animals flourish unless the declaration, “We are going to restore our climate,” is part of our current paradigm? Peter’s point is, once enough of us actually say this, then we have the social license to go to work on it.

It is the context in which all of our conversations take place that shapes our actions.

I realize that to some this may seem unlikely, or even impossible. Yet this is the power of a declaration – it creates a new future to live into. In the months and years following Kennedy’s speech, people got to work. Much of NASA’s work in the 60’s was shaped by this declaration, and resulting goal that became possible the instant was spoken. People got behind it, chose to believe it was possible, and worked together made it happen. It was a shared goal that united Americans.

As incredible a moment as this was, imagine what it would feel like to witness the human race coming together, united by a shared goal of life flourishing on earth…

Why aren’t more of us asking for this already? We have scalable technologies that can capture carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere. If more of us were aware of this, it seems that we would be asking for them to be used. Perhaps if we were aware that there are leaders around the world standing for a healthy climate, we would be more encouraged to consider our own goals for the future of life on earth.

My conversation with Peter brought the topic of social license to the forefront of my mind. Do you remember an instance as a kid where you asked for something and were told there’s no way you’ll ever have it? Or a time when you spoke up in front of a group and were laughed at?

It’s a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature that we don’t want to look silly. And if we’ve been laughed at before, or told that what we want is unrealistic, particularly at a young and impressionable age, perhaps there’s a part of us that shuts down.

We’re social creatures. Though we may not want to admit it, our outlook is shaped by what those around us are talking about. It’s here that we can understand the power of actually voicing what we want with our climate goals.

There’s no room for the possibility of humanity and nature flourishing in a paradigm called, humans are hopelessly shortsighted and we’re all doomed. But if we live in a world where people say, “We ARE going to restore the climate,” this changes the game we’re playing.

Does it really matter if this sounds overly optimistic to others, probably far fewer than you think who will actually tell you? Martin Luther King Jr. stood for a future that he didn’t yet have evidence of, but went around talking about what he believed in. JFK Jr. stood for a future he had no idea how to deliver on when he first spoke it. But it moved people and both of those declared futures were realized.

The first step to achieving the miraculous is to actually speak it into existence. Martin Luther King Jr., and JFK. Jr. created new futures with their conversations, and we can do the same. Let’s mobilize to see life on our planet flourish.

So… What’s missing?

In writing this, I welcome your responses and ideas to what seems to be one of the defining questions of our era. I believe what’s missing is the ownership and belief that we have goals which can unite us.

We need each other’s ideas. We need one another to speak up for what we see, and what we believe in. This is humanity at our best – collaborating and sharing resources and ideas.

I believe too many of us aren’t sharing our climate goals. Even if we are speaking up, isn’t there room for more? If our elected representatives had their phones ringing off the hook, or emails filling up, or fielded 21 questions per day as they shook hands out on the campaign trail for midterm elections, do you think they’d realize we need a stronger response? As Peter says, this is what your next door neighbor can do, which is just another way of saying, here’s what YOU can do.

I wonder if President Kennedy, were he alive today, would look out at us and say something like, “Ask not what the world can do for you, but what you can do for the world.”

Our Opportunity to Choose

Our paradigm shapes what we believe is possible, and what we expect to happen. And whatever view we settle on, we find evidence to support. This is where choice comes into play.

The majority of humans DO care. We’re just looking for something to get behind. And we are capable of incredible things when we work together.

To restore a healthy climate for future generations who are likely to live the safe, healthy, abundant lives we have enjoyed may seem like a long shot. Kind of like walking on the moon when you have no adequate technology, no supporting physics, and a chorus of skeptics arguing that it’s not even possible.

The technology for climate restoration already exists. All that’s missing is the will to do it, and collaborative effort to see it through.

We have the opportunity to choose to come together and take the actions needed to restore our climate, like President Kennedy said sixty years ago, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

It may not seem easy to have these conversations in your communities, or take the action that you see you can take, in your own unique stand for a healthy climate and planet. But our modern world is ripe for real leadership, especially with respect to the environment, and climate. Here’s what leadership looks like:

· Generating conversations in our communities and trusting that they make a difference.

· Shifting our priorities to include the long-term impacts of present day actions

· Focusing on what’s possible instead of impossible

· Realizing the stakes of the game we’re playing

Peter says with a knowing grin, “All there is to do is play in the game and have fun doing it.” What else are we doing here?

Climate restoration represents a future that allows us to believe in and demand a healthy climate for our future generations. This wouldn’t be possible without climate scientists like Peter and his colleagues, who are unafraid to speak out and stand for the technologies that can help us get there.

You don’t have to be a climate scientist to alter the course of the future. You can make your difference right where you are, as what you say and do influences the actions of your next-door neighbor, in sometimes the most surprising of ways.

Like Peter, I believe in a healthy climate for future generations. What do you believe?

This is our 21st century moonshot.

Contact the author Andy Bayon at moc.noyaBydnA@ydnA