written 30 May 2021
published 6 June 2021
On April 11, 1970, Apollo 11 was launched, the third mission expected to land men on the moon. Two days later, a previously damaged oxygen tank in the service module exploded, forcing a significant change of plans. With no oxygen for life support in the service module, the three-man crew was forced to live in the lunar module for the four days it would take to return to Earth. But the lunar module had been designed to support only two men for two days on the surface of the moon. The most critical need was to scrub CO2 out of the air. The challenge was to improvise a functional solution from parts on board, before the astronauts passed out and died. It is a testament to ingenuity under pressure that all three men survived to tell the tale.
As a species, we are facing a similar emergency: climate change. After centuries of living off the abundant energy of fossil fuels, we are coming to the end of our finite resources. In addition, we have a CO2 problem. Unlike the Apollo crew, we won't choke of it, but the warming effect is cooking us. On our current trajectory, we will hit a 1.5°C increase within a few years, and the odds of reaching a lethal 5°C increase get very high within a few more decades. To give our grandchildren a chance to survive, we must immediately begin constructing a solution with our existing technology.
In the Apollo emergency, everyone agreed the problem was serious and a solution was imperative. That consensus meant the entire creative energy at NASA could focus on the task at hand. Our situation with the climate emergency is radically different. For economic and political reasons, a sizable portion of our species denies there is even a problem, let alone one demanding immediate action. The fact that this is playing out over decades, and not hours, contributes to this complacency. But the magnitude of effort required to make such a fundamental global change means taking action sooner rather than later. By the time the problem is abundantly obvious, it will be too late to do anything meaningful, like realizing you need fire insurance as a firestorm sweeps toward your house.
Even though we have wasted decades, the good news is that awareness of the climate emergency has increased in the last few years. The negative climate impacts are becoming apparent, with increasingly severe wildfires, droughts, floods and storms, building to a tipping point in both political and economic will. Exxon Mobil, after funding climate denial for decades, just had a significant change toward climate awareness in their board of directors. Last week Denmark required Shell to reduce emissions by 45% within 9 years. Even Republicans, currently obsessing over hysterical conspiracy theories, are noticing that their younger members are concerned about climate.
It must be acknowledged that there is no guarantee that humans can turn this around, and many serious investigators think it is already too late. The inertia of the climate system is huge, and there are natural climate tipping points that could radically accelerate the rate of warming. But if we value life at all, the attempt is worth it. We have no idea of what is possible until we try.
Life has survived such a situation in the past. The first single celled organisms flourished on the abundant chemical energies of the new planet, just as humans have with stored fossil fuels. But eventually, these were exhausted, threatening extinction. Life's solution was photosynthesis, harnessing the ongoing energy of the sun.
Or consider the situation of a chick in its egg, which initially grows as an isolated individual, using the stored energy in the yolk. At exactly the point where it exhausts that stored energy, it hatches out into a larger world, learning to live in cooperation with the rest of life.
We're on the verge of doing the same thing, for the same reasons. Our economic and energy systems will have to evolve, transcending the illusions of human supremacy and the fiscal fiction of externalized costs, shifting from opportunistic energy parasites to living within our energy income. While human creativity is boundless, it's not yet clear if humans are wise enough to emulate the wisdom of bacteria and chickens. The jury is still out.