.no time for gambling
by Lukas, rocket enthusiast and PhD student.
“We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history - and won.”
- Harry S. Truman, 06.08.1945 (Source)
This sentence was radioed mere hours after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, announcing the existence of nuclear technology to the world. A technology, which brought fear of global annihilation in the following decades and does so to this day, that nowadays promises hope for a tool against the climate crisis.
While the potential future role of nuclear technology is certainly a controversial topic, the speech surrounding this quote actually focused on the scientific effort pooled together by British and American researchers to realise this technology. A feat achieved by tens of thousands of scientists and workers, put together on a task to venture into unknown realms of physics, chemistry, and engineering - within a span of only six years. It is this story, how this “scientific gamble” won the war, that shaped our view on science for the future decades. Not only was science able to tackle long-existing problems as disease and world-hunger, but even urgent crises such as the largest war seen in history, could be solved by means of science.
Now any problem humanity was facing could be solved with new technology, any boundary could be crossed by scientific development. The following decades reinforced this mindset with the advent of even more fields of so called “high technology”: Aerospace, computer science, genetic engineering, etc., anything was now possible. We have almost become used to news about new discoveries, new technology, new inventions, that promise a better life and better world to us. In fact, we’ve become so used to stories appealing to our human fantasies of omnipotence, that we’ve become ignorant to the complexity of some problems we’re facing. If everything seems possible, every crisis starts losing its intimidation. No matter the problem, science finds a solution.
It is a tempting thought to be able to make everything that comes to mind a reality. Dreams as old as history itself, such as immortality and the journey to celestial spheres, now seemingly come within reach. Tragedies of famine and disease become rarer and rarer, so that we start forgetting the horrors they once invoked in our lives. Even the crises and problems ourselves brought into the world through our use of new technologies, as with acid rain or ozone depletion, start fading from our awareness, as the technological fixes we employ start working. And right at this moment, the release of the first vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, retells the tale of scientists saving the day and bringing an end to yet another crisis.
And so, it seems perfectly logical to just apply this mindset to the next best crisis on our doorstep, and have scientists figure out a way to get out of the looming climate crisis.
But the climate crisis isn’t looming anymore. It’s happening right now. It has been happening for quite some time, first slowly, but only now, as it has picked up enough speed to being impossible to deny anymore, we are starting to realise the danger we’ve brought ourselves into. And this in spite of the fact that we have known for over a century that we are able to influence the climate of our planet by burning fossil fuels. In his book “Världarnas utveckling” (engl. “Worlds in the Making”), Svante Arrhenius wrote in 1906 (!) that
“we yet recognize that the slight percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere may by the advances of industry be changed to a noticeable degree in the course of a few centuries […] and we thus recognize that the percentage of carbonic acid in the air must be increasing at a constant rate as long as the consumption of coal, petroleum, etc., is maintained at its present figure, and at a still more rapid rate if this consumption should continue to increase as it does now. […] By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.” (Source)
Even though the climatic concerns of the time were more about a possible return of a glacial period, and thus the ability to warm the climate was perceived in a rather positive light, science obviously has been aware of a global warming scenario for more than 100 years now. And more obviously, Arrhenius didn’t and couldn’t anticipate the exponential growth in the global carbon dioxide emissions of the following decades, reducing the time it took for his prediction to come true by an order of magnitude.
Now we are in a situation, where we globally have been accelerating towards this climate crisis for the better part of two centuries. And our collectively trained behaviour in dealing with global challenges entices us yet again, that there will be a scientific solution to brake this course, before we hit the cliff and fall into a completely unpredictable and potentially civilisation-ending future. We cling to the hope that soon some outstanding discovery will be made in some laboratory that will easily end this whole spook. That we will soon be able to efficiently convert electricity into hydrogen and back with new catalysts. That we can soon have clean energy everywhere with new fission reactors. That we will soon be able to solve all the world's energy problems with nuclear fusion. That we will soon be able to simply suck carbon dioxide out of the air and just undo 200 years of environmental destruction.
And this behaviour has severe consequences on our political and economical decisions. Carmakers such as BMW and Mercedes have been delaying their commitment to an emission-free vehicle technology for years with the help of politicians, in the hope of somehow being able to continue the tried and tested internal combustion technology with green fuels, or to at least euphemise them on paper. Energy grids are being insufficiently prepared for decentralised feed-in dynamics, in the hope that new energy technologies will continue to guarantee the operation of largescale power plants by the energy companies in the future. For years, climate-harming energy and raw material sources were not held financially accountable by politicians for the environmental damage they caused, in the hope that climate-friendly technologies would somehow prevail, and even now, regulatory tools such as carbon taxes are rarely used. And if they are, it is usually to a ridiculously small extent.
But we don’t have the time to wait for these scientific miracles. According to the “Emissions Gap Report 2020” by the UN environment program, the current worldwide climate policies are on path with a global increase in temperatures by at least +3.0°C by the year 2100. This would greatly overshoot the targeted goal of +1.5°C and would put our climate firmly in the realm of self-reinforcing feedback loops, where we will definitely loose control and will have little to no say in the peak temperature our planet will actually reach in the future. To even have a 50:50 chance of meeting the +1.5°C, the IPCC special report in 2018 laid out global CO2 budget of 580 Gt that remain, before that goal becomes unfeasible. And at our current rate of consumption this budget will be used up no later than 2035. And even this only gives us the chance of a coin toss for containing global warming to the +1.5°C, where we think of being able to handle the ecological repercussions caused by this.
This is extremely little time for what can only described as the biggest project in human history. A project with no masterplan, no central management, no roadmap, no work breakdown structure, only a deadline and an invoice that increases for every year we miss that deadline. Within the next 15 years, it will not be enough to develop concepts and technologies, we will need to have them deployed by then to an extend able to replace their climate-harming counterparts. We have no time for waiting for smarter ideas, we need to enact the existing ones now. We’re not heading for the cliff anymore, we more or less already jumped over it. Waiting for scientific miracles to brake us before hurdling into disaster is futile, when we’re already in the process of doing so.
The triumphs of scientific research have led us into a false sense of security, where we prefer to outsource our problems to scientists rather than tackle them head-on through societal efforts. I cited the Manhattan Project and COVID-19 vaccines as examples for how science gained the trust as the ultimate tool for solving global problems. Neither of them did.
Countries that postponed immediate action against the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and hoped, medicine would soon fix the issue, suffered hardest from the pandemic and had the highest deathrates to mourn. Only those, who faced the struggle head-on and who have taken on the tenacious efforts to combat the spread of the disease, were able to prevent this countless loss of lives, we see elsewhere in the world.
The Manhattan Project, or rather its British predecessor “Tube Alloys”, that were initiated to outrun German efforts in nuclear technology, also didn’t win the war, Japan wasn’t even at war with the Allied at that point. They didn’t rely on “future tech” to combat the global authoritarianism crisis in the first half of the 20th century, Germany was defeated by the efforts of the people and the soldiers even before the Manhattan Project could fulfil the purpose for which it was created. And historians attribute at least as great a role to the simultaneous invasion by the Soviet Union in the victory over Japan as to the nuclear threat from the USA.
So no, the “greatest scientific gamble in history”, as Truman named it, didn’t win anything and should never have led us to believe, that we can solve everything by means of science. We need to face the struggles ahead ourselves. This will demand a lot from us personally and socially, and we will need strong political leaders who will lead the effort and will encourage even the doubters and disheartened to persevere. But we can no longer wait for science to fix this, for scientists to absolve us of our wrongdoings. We need to face the climate crisis ourselves, and we need to face it now.