LOS ANGELES – In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asserted that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal…of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” by the end of the decade. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration accepted the challenge. From 1969 to 1972, NASA’s Apollo program achieved six manned landings on the moon – missions that expanded human knowledge, stimulated economic growth, bolstered America’s geopolitical standing at a critical time, and inspired people worldwide.
Since then, NASA has repeatedly overcome adversity in pursuit of important breakthroughs and achievements, including exploring the solar system with robotic spacecraft, peering deep into the universe with space telescopes, and building the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. These successes far outweigh NASA’s few failures.
But, since the Apollo program, NASA has lacked a clear, overarching goal to guide its activities. To drive progress in crucial areas, the agency needs a compelling vision that is consequential and relevant to current needs – and it is up to US President Barack Obama to define it.
Obama should challenge NASA to address one of today’s most important issues, global warming, by developing safe, cost-effective technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere and oceans. This mission could be accomplished in two phases.During the first phase, which could be completed by 2020, researchers would identify roughly 10-20 candidate geo-engineering technologies and test them in small-scale experiments. The second phase would include large-scale test demonstrations to evaluate the most promising technologies by 2025.
Developing these technologies is crucial, given that, over the last half-century, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from roughly 320 parts per million to almost 400 parts per million, heating up the planet and increasing the acidity of the world’s oceans. At this rate, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will exceed 450 parts per million in roughly 25 years.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that this increase will raise the average global temperature by roughly 2°C (3.6°F) over pre-industrial levels. It is widely agreed that exceeding this threshold would trigger the most devastating consequences of climate change. In other words, humanity has less than 25 years to stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Given this time constraint, decarbonization alone will be insufficient to avert irreversible, catastrophic climate change. In 2000-2011, the world decarbonized at an average annual rate of 0.8%. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimatesthat, given current trends, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 will exceed 500 parts per million by 2050, and 800 parts per million by 2100. According to a report by the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, even if the world decarbonizes at an annual rate of 3% until 2050, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will rise to 750 parts per million, triggering an average global temperature increase of 4°C (7.2°F) over pre-industrial levels.
So, while the world should reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in favor of lower-carbon alternatives as quickly as possible, another approach is needed to avoid crossing the two-degree threshold. The best option is to develop technologies capable of removing large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans, offsetting emissions during the transition from fossil fuels. NASA is the best organization for this mission for several reasons.
Geo-engineering (large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system aimed at moderating global warming) could have severe unintended consequences. Developing such technologies safely and efficiently will require the kind of creativity, technical competence, understanding of planetary processes, international participation, and global monitoring capabilities that NASA is best equipped to provide.
In a sense, global warming itself is a massive geo-engineering experiment with unknown consequences. NASA’s international experience will enable researchers to explore the options fully, and to develop the most effective technologies for reducing this ongoing experiment’s risks. And NASA’s reputation for comprehensive scientific inquiry will minimize suspicion about the effectiveness of the solutions that it develops – and the associated risks.
The natural processes by which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and oceans work too slowly to offset current emissions without intervention; NASA’s success will rest on its ability to expedite and accelerate these processes. Promising potential solutions include causing CO2-absorbing rocks to weather more quickly, expanding practices and technologies in farming and forestry that sequester carbon in soil, and fertilizing the ocean to stimulate the growth of plants that consume and sequester CO2.
Far from conflicting with other, more traditional NASA programs, this mission would help to reinvigorate NASA and give its other programs greater focus and significance. This new, overarching vision would motivate NASA to gain a better understanding of the planetary processes that may affect Earth’s future, and to advance its capability to influence these processes if needed. Ultimately, this knowledge could be NASA’s greatest contribution to the world.
We do not have to decide today whether to implement geo-engineering technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans. But, in order to ensure that they can be applied if and when they are needed, we must begin to develop them soon. Obama should act now, lest he miss this crucial opportunity to curtail global warming.