In his Rose Garden statement of April 16, Bush said:
“I have put our nation on a path to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of our greenhouse gas emissions. … As we take these steps here at home, we’re also working internationally on a rational path to addressing global climate change. … Today, I’m announcing a new national goal: to stop the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.” The problem is that the steps that Bush proposed are tentative, preliminary, wholly inadequate, and with far too long a timeline. We need to do much more than to simply stop the growth; we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level at which Planet Earth can sustain without climate change. That means a huge reduction in emissions.
Vice President Al Gore has proposed a much more aggressive program. In his speech of July 17 to the Alliance for Climate Protection, Gore said,
“Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.” In that speech Gore alluded several times to the Apollo program in which John F. Kennedy proposed putting an American on the moon within ten years. The program actually put two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the moon 8 years and 2 months later.
There have been many calls for an Apollo program or a Manhattan project to address the energy crisis and solve the climate change problem, but these are the wrong models.
The reason is that both Apollo and Manhattan sought, principally, to develop technology: Rocket engines, heat-resistant materials, spaces suits, and so forth for the Apollo program and uranium separation, plutonium production, and the design and test of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan project.
Today, we already have the technology to solve the climate/energy crisis. Of course, some new technology would be useful. Batteries with much higher energy content per unit weight and a much faster charge rate would facilitate electric vehicles of far greater range and capacity. A malleable superconducting material with a transition temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit would make possible electricity transmission with zero losses over the entire world, if such a material were even possible. But such technical innovations are not necessary. As founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins put it in an interview with Charlie Rose on July 15:
“I don’t think that an Apollo or a Manhattan style crash program is what we need. We have plenty of technology to solve this problem cost effectively; we need to apply it.”
No, the appropriate model for the climate/energy crisis is not Apollo or Manhattan. It is World War II.
In January of 1942 President Roosevelt called into his office a former executive of Sears Roebuck named Donald Nelson. Roosevelt asked Nelson how he liked the name “War Production Board.” He liked it, replied Nelson.
“I’m tired of the way this production thing has been muddled,” the President told Nelson. “How would you like to take over the job?”
“I will if I can boss it,” Nelson replied.
“You can write your own ticket,” Roosevelt told him, “and I’ll sign it.”
Nelson remained head of the War Production Board until 1944 when Julius A. Krug took over until the Board was dissolved following the surrender of Japan.
The result was the largest increase in production that the world had ever seen before or since. Between July 1, 1940, and July 31, 1945, The United States produced 296,601 aircraft, 71,060 ships including 6,500 naval vessels, 86,388 tanks, 64,546 landing craft, 3,500,000 jeeps, trucks, and personnel carriers, 12,000,000 rifles, carbines, and machine guns, and 47,000,000 tons of artillery shells. We were truly, in Roosevelt’s phrase, the arsenal of democracy.
The amazing thing is that, contrary to allegations by conservatives about government spending, the consumer economy also grew during this period. Civilian spending rose an average of 12% per year, and 500,000 new businesses were started including 11,000 supermarkets.
It is the kind of commitment we saw during World War II that we need to make Al Gore’s proposal a reality.
However Gore responds, President Obama should reply: “You can write your own ticket, and I’ll sign it.”
by Herb Engstrom
Herb Engstrom is a retired physicist who worked on materials problems related to energy production and storage at both Brookhaven and Oak Ridge National Labs.