Search By Topic


Solving the Climate Crisis is the Moonshot of Our Generation

By Josh Tewksbury, U.S. Global Hub Director and Interim Executive Director for Future Earth, a key partner of the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2021

On September 12th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy stunned the world by committing the United States to landing humans on the moon by the end of the decade.

At the time of his announcement, little more than a year had passed since a 27-year-old Cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter orbit around our planet. Even for those at the forefront of this emerging field, the challenge of designing and building an unimaginably powerful spacecraft, then piloting it across more than half a million miles of the void, seemed insurmountable. And yet, through the collective effort of more than 400,000 Americans (and spending equivalent to 2.5 percent GDP), the Apollo program achieved the impossible in July of 1969 – six months ahead of Kennedy’s target.

Echoing history, President Biden recently proclaimed another decadal challenge this Earth Day at a special climate summit of global leaders, pledging to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 to help solve ‘the existential crisis of our time.’

Indeed, scientists, journalists, world leaders, Nobel laureates, and many others now agree that we are living through a planetary emergency as climate change begins to arrive in force. Our actions in the coming years will transform the fate of our planet more completely than any other time in human history, from the invention of agriculture to the birth of capitalism.

President Biden’s 2030 commitment, however, will not be enough to solve the current crisis. The IPCC’s target of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming will almost certainly be missed. Earlier this year, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry told reporters, “Even if we did everything that we said we were going to do when we signed up in Paris, we would see a rise in the Earth’s temperature to somewhere around 3.7 degrees [2 degrees Celsius] or more, which is catastrophic.”

With more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the world will suffer more frequent and severe climate extremes like tropical cyclones, flooding, heat waves, droughts, and storm surges. Impacts from these events will have cascading consequences for issues like food insecurity, the growing water crisis, public health, and violent conflict for communities around the world. This rapid environmental shift will also stresg entire ecosystems to the point of collapse, leading to catastrophic losses in biodiversity and a general weakening of the planet’s capacity to support human civilization.

Incremental approaches to control this crisis are failing. By the end of this decade, science, policy, and industry must cooperate in unprecedented ways to drive radical technological and social progress, at scales many orders of magnitude larger and faster than any other time in history. We must urgently transition to new ways of making and storing energy, new ways of moving goods and ourselves around the planet, and new ways of thinking around where and how to invest public resources. 

Our Global Carbon Project found that mobility, for example, made up over half of the 17% drop in global emissions seen during the peak of Covid-19 lockdowns last year, further justifying the national-level electrification of the transportation sector. Informed and innovative policies at the level of cities and businesses will also be critical if we are to bring about the rapid and coordinated systemic change needed to stabilize greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, touching everything from food production to urban design and the future of work. 

Transitioning to net-zero emissions will be our first truly planetary-wide effort, calling nearly all our institutions and decision-making to account. This moonshot – borne not out of an arms race, but instead a race for our shared survival – will be far more challenging than a lunar voyage, but it is a journey that we must undertake. 

Together, we can solve the climate emergency before this decade is out. Let’s get to work. 

The Sustainability Research & Innovation Congress 2021 (SRI2021) is the world’s first transdisciplinary gathering in sustainability – it will be a space of fierce advocacy for sustainability scholarship, innovation, collaboration and action. Taking place June 12-15, 2021, SRI2021 will be the first in an annual series that unites global leaders, experts, industry and innovators to inspire action and promote a transformation in sustainability.