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Why We Need a New Manhattan Project to Address Climate Change

We need a totally new approach to the climate crisis that recognizes that the problem is a technical one that cannot be solved by political means but rather only by technical ones.
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Albert Einstein once observed that "Everything has changed since the day that the power of the atom was unleashed except for one thing: the way we think." Our belief is that this observation also applies the energy/climate change problem as addressed in the Kyoto and Copenhagen conferences and their resulting protocols and agreements. We seem to be stuck in the approach of attempting to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses and not looking at other ways of dealing with this global challenge. The results of the recently concluded Copenhagen conference with a U.S.-led climate deal that included limiting temperature rises will, in our view, simply repeat the history of the Kyoto Protocol, with many speeches and grandiose commitments but with no real change in the situation that will only get worse, in fact, much worse. The major carbon dioxide emitters are not countries with large populations and relatively low carbon dioxide per capita ratios. Asking them to reduce carbon dioxide output while the rich nations, including the United States, continue to produce greenhouse gasses will not work.

That's why we think we need a totally new approach to the problem that recognizes that the problem is a technical one that cannot be solved by political means but rather only by technical ones. Our proposed alternative would be a major scientific study of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to develop a strategy to allocate investment and develop the necessary policies and institutions to address the problem.

We would accomplish this change in approach by having an outstanding team of economists, engineers and physical scientists come together having them focus on setting the policy and research priorities to address this issue in the same spirit that an international and interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians developed the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. The impetus for this development could be the realization that the piecemeal plans proposed to deal with these new realities to date would not work. In fact, there is low-lying fruit:

  • Developing institutions for financing energy in a manner that enables government to pool the risk and provide lower cost funding. Alternative energy projects are very capital intensive. The cost of capital to build a house is under six percent at present, while the cost of capital for energy projects in most studies range from eight to twelve percent.
  • Another large barrier to developing alternative energy sources is regulation. The permitting process for both conventional and alternative energy sources in order reduce the uncertainty of investors and reduce the time it takes to replace old coal burning generators that are producing over thirty percent of our carbon dioxide emissions make alternative energy sources prohibitively expensive.
  • The cost of solar panels has dropped by almost a factor of four in the past five years. The major component of the cost of solar power is now the balance of systems and the infrastructure to transmit the power. Given current technology, more land is devoted to producing ethanol from corn than would be needed to produce the electricity needs of the U.S. if the plants were located in the Southwest. If the cost of the balance of systems were reduced, the cost of capital is reduced and the infrastructure to transmit the power is built, solar power could become a major carbon dioxide free source of electricity.
  • The United States should adopt a standard nuclear plant, as done in France. This would not only lower cost, but it would simplify the regulatory process.

There are some projects that are more difficult:

  • The carbon dioxide bond requires energy to break, however, nature has provided a wonderful mechanism to do so through photosynthesis. There is already substantial research on using photosynthesis to use carbon dioxide to produce economically useful products. This research should be encouraged. A Cap and Trade system where there is a market for sequestering carbon dioxide would make such projects economically viable sooner.
  • Developing transmission lines using carbon fiber and developing efficient storage methods for electricity would greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide free base load power could be transmitted to meet peak loads and used to power vehicles.

This change in our thinking and the development of a new approach to setting priorities to solve the climate change problem would be much more productive than the empty promises of the Copenhagen Conference that will only repeat the history of the Kyoto Protocol. Returning to Albert Einstein, he once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By this definition what we have been doing to date to deal with this global and growing problem is simply insane and calls for a new approach.