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President Obama Needs a Manhattan Project. Here's What it Should Be

On August 2 1939 President Roosevelt received a letter signed by Albert Einstein. The letter warned of the danger that Germany might develop an atomic weapon, and advised that the United States should develop its own, as quickly as possible. Thus, the Manhattan Project was born. Today, CO2 emissions threaten to destroy our environment. We need a new Manhattan Project, and this time for the health of our planet.

On August 2 1939 – just before the outbreak of World War II in Europe – President Roosevelt received a letter, signed by Albert Einstein. The letter warned of the danger that Germany might develop an atomic weapon, and advised that the United States should develop its own, as quickly as possible. Although the world was still at (fragile) peace, and that the US was not to enter the war for another two years, President Roosevelt took decisive action. It is in honour of this letter that this blog adopts a similar format – for today’s situation as regards global warming and climate change threatens the planet even more dangerously than the events of WW II.

Dear President Obama

Some 75 years ago, the world faced a global crisis. As the crisis was breaking, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to your predecessor, FDR, suggesting that an important contribution to the solution was technical. FDR recognised that the letter was important, and so appointed some advisors, setting in train what would later become known as the Manhattan Project. By bringing together the (then free) world’s leading scientists and engineers, by providing all the resources they needed, and by giving them political support, the problem was duly solved, so allowing our free world of today to be what it is.

Today, the world is facing another crisis. I’m not Albert Einstein, but I am writing to you with the same message. An important contribution is technical, and you, today, have the opportunity to take the same action as FDR took 75 years ago. To gather together the world’s leading scientists and engineers, to provide them with all the resources they need, and to give them that oh-so-important political support.

But the technical solution isn’t about reducing emissions. Yes, reducing emissions is a good thing to do. But it isn’t the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to develop technologies to extract carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, directly from the atmosphere.

Reducing emissions is a good thing to do because it stops the global warming problem getting worse. But it’s also a very difficult thing to do because – as you know all too well – it requires global international agreement, and for many nations, burning carbon-based fuels is their ticket to economic growth.

But even if carbon emissions were to be cut to zero tomorrow, it wouldn't solve the fundamental problem: the fact – yes, fact - that there is just too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now. Cutting emissions stops even more carbon dioxide from accumulating, but it does nothing about the carbon dioxide that is already there.

To make that crystal clear, let me draw an analogy. Imagine you are the Captain of a large, ocean-going liner. You are on watch, on the bridge, and your First Officer brings you some disturbing news. “Sir,” he reports, “I must inform you that we have just discovered a leak below the water-line. It looks like we’ve been shipping water for some time. It’s not a crisis yet – the ship is not in imminent danger of sinking – but we do need to take action.”

What order, or indeed orders, do you give?

Quite likely, you will give two orders. The first will be “staunch the flow”, so that action is taken to plug the hole. And the second will be “man the pumps”, so that the water already in the hold is pumped out.

But suppose – for whatever reason - that you can give only one order: either to staunch the flow, or to man the pumps. Which order would you give? And why?

As a wise Captain, you will surely order “man the pumps” – even though “staunch the flow” seems to be the more obvious thing to do. Why, then, is it better to man the pumps? Because, even if the hole can be plugged, so stopping more water from coming in, the ship might still sink, slowly, because of the water already in the hold. But if you can man the pumps fast enough, so that the rate at which the water is pumped out is faster than the rate at which it leaks in, the ship will continue to float, for ever.

Mr President, you are the Captain of a ship: UNS Earth (that’s ‘United Nations Ship!), and it is sinking. There is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, and even more is coming in due to the continued burning of fossil fuels. Curbing emissions is like “staunching the flow” – a good thing to do, but not the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to “man the pumps”, to develop technologies to ‘pump’ greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere faster than they are going in.

This technology is not pie-in-the-sky, and some prototypes have already been built (see, for examplethis,and this). But the technology is still rudimentary: to develop it for large scale operational use requires focus, resource and commitment – something that can only be achieved by a current-day Manhattan Project.

And there are two, very big, prizes to be won.

The first prize is technical– the problem gets solved, for real.

And the second is political. As long as the technology can operate on a scale large enough, so that it can pump the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere faster than they are put in, it doesn't matter how much is put in. That means that those countries that need that carbon-burning meal ticket can continue to burn as much carbon as they like. Whatever they put in can be pumped out. That’s a win-win on a truly global scale, so enabling a very solid international coalition. And the politics works on a local scale too: this project would be supported by the liberals, who would see it as a way to save the planet, and by the conservatives too, who would be attracted by the profits to come from the new technologies.

The technical problems aren’t easy to solve. But if the Manhattan Project succeeded, let alone Apollo, this one can succeed too. All that it needs is commitment, resources and leadership.

Mr President, you have the power and the authority to make this happen. Now.

You can do it.

Yes, you can.

Yours sincerely,

Dennis Sherwood


A technical note:

The direct extraction of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in one of a number of technologies referred to as ‘geoengineering’. In September 2009, Britain’s Royal Society – whose members are the top scientists and engineers in Britain, and many other countries too – published a thoroughly-researched report entitled ‘Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance, and uncertainty', which comprehensively reviewed and compared all the geoengineering technologies, including CDR – carbon dioxide removal - the technology advocated in the letter.

On page 19 we read “It is clearly technically possible to remove CO2 from the atmosphere using many different technologies, ranging from ecosystem manipulation to ‘hard’ engineering”; on page 21 “All CDR methods have the potential benefit that in addition to addressing climate change, they also address the direct effects of elevated atmospheric CO2, especially ocean acidification”; and in the summary on page 49 “While CDR methods act very slowly, by reducing CO2 concentrations they deal with the root cause of climate change and its consequences”. That last quote is the clincher – it’s all about dealing with root causes.

And even with the technologies developed since this report was written 5 years ago, there is still a long way to go. But there was a long way to go with nuclear technology in 1939. That’s why we need a modern-day Manhattan project. And that, Mr President, is why we need your leadership.

Dennis Sherwood runs his own UK-based consulting business – see Dennis has an MA in physics from Cambridge, an MPhil in biophysics from Yale, and a PhD in biology from UCSD, and during his career he has been a consulting partner with Deloitte Haskins + Sells, and Coopers & Lybrand; an Executive Director with Goldman Sachs; and MD of the UK operations of SRI Consulting. Dennis is also the author of many journal articles and nine books.