A common cause for the common good

Paul Hearns believes it is time for the tech giants to come together for an Apollo-like effort on climate change?

14 June 2019

The world faces many challenges. The rise of populism and slide to the right, the increasing gap between rich and poor, rising violence against minorities and, of course, the greatest challenge of all, climate change.

It has been suggested, more than once, that a different approach to solving these problems is necessary.

Among academics and engineers alike, there has been a call for a war-time organisation of development efforts for things like battery technology, solar and fusion energy generation.




“Imagine a consortium of private companies, facilitated by governments and academia, being given a deadline and as near as damn-it unlimited resources to perfect fusion energy”

During times of extreme need, such as during war time, efforts like the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear weapons, but more benignly in peace time, the Apollo project to land on the moon, tackled what at the time were viewed as potentially impossible tasks. They did this by breaking the problems down, assigning small teams and coordinating efforts to achieve specific goals. Admittedly, they also poured billions of dollars into them, but that, strangely enough, is not the issue.

Billions of dollars are already being spent on R&D in all of these areas, but arguably in narrow, uncoordinated fashion, without a unifying goal or direction.

While the germ of this idea has been circulating for some time, it has gained momentum lately from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that states quite starkly that we have, as a planet, about 12 years in which to arrest the worst effects of climate change.

Essentially the report says that if we are to limit, not prevent, temperature rises to just 1.5c, we have a narrow window of opportunity that will require drastic measures. Furthermore, it says that if we see a rise of 2c by 2100 it would mean a difference of 10cm in sea levels.

The issue is that not only would warmer environments result in a basic sea level rise, due to greater melt water, but the expansions of the existing oceans would contribute further. This is over and above the extremes that have been seen in terms of Australian and Californian droughts and extreme flooding events. A generally warmer atmosphere would drive greater extremes of weather globally, and not just storms, hurricanes and typhoons. None of which mentions the effects of coral bleaching, methane release from frozen lakes and permafrost tundra melting.

The effects on the natural world are devastating too, with accelerated extinction rates for species already on the edge.

Another UN report, the IPBES Global Assessment, has found that an unprecedented 1 million plant and animal species are already on the verge of extinction. A rise in global average temperature of 2c by 2100 would mean another mass extinction on the order of the Permian event some 250 million years ago, according to some experts.

However, given that the two largest trading blocs in the world, the US and China are currently involved in a petty tariff war, it is unlikely that either will be the lynchpin for a new Bletchley Park, Apollo Programme or the like.

But there is hope.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, is a shining example of how international cooperation, carefully organised and coordinated around a common goal can succeed.

Indeed, many modern science achievements from the gravity wave detection team behind LIGO to the recent black hole imaging triumph team under Event Horizon, have demonstrated how diverse skills can be brought together successfully for a unifying goal.

However, there is an equally valid suggestion that it is time to move beyond model of governmental or even academic organisations for this purpose.

Imagine the power of the top 10 artificial intelligence technologists coming together for a consortium for one purpose: to produce AI to tackle climate change.

Imagine a consortium of private companies, facilitated by governments and academia, being given a deadline and as near as damn-it unlimited resources to perfect fusion energy.

If we could crack fusion energy within 20 years, and share the technology the world over, what effect would it have on emissions?

If private companies, from the major technology vendors to pharma-chem and manufacturing were given the same strictures and told to decarbonise the environment, where would we be?

The cost of abandoning cites and campuses around the world as sea level rises, should be enough to give a context for what the impending catastrophe will cost.

There are already indications of how severe this could be. Since 1957, there have been warnings that Indonesia’s capital Jakarta is sinking. By 2050, up to 95% of the northern portion of the city will be below sea level.

In 2007, a monsoon left large parts of the city under 1.5m of water. Climate change has accelerated the subsidence, which is the major underlying cause, but its subsequent vulnerability to flooding from weather events has been exacerbated by more severe storms and rising sea levels.

Comparative studies around the world have found similarly vulnerable cities, not least of which is the San Francisco Bay Area.

Compare the cost of abandon a city of 10 million people to investing in a climate change programme.

Is it time for organisations like Google, Microsoft, IBM, HPE Dell Technologies, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Huawei, Cisco, Amazon, to name but a few, to step up, collaborate and spend some of their billions investing in the future of the planet to ensure there is still a market to sell to beyond 2100 — and not just for Sou’westers, Macintoshes and Wellies?

Imagine a kind of General Public Licence for any technology developed specifically to tackle climate change. All governments, NGOs and private companies being able to use the technologies towards a unified goal of reducing the impact of climate change.

When one looks at the immense achievements of Apollo, the Concorde, Bletchley Park, CERN, LIGO and Event Horizon, it is clear that great leaps can be made when the imperative is there, the resources are committed and deadlines are set.

If ever there was an issue that required extraordinary effort, it is this. And as it is an issue that faces all of humanity, surely that should be enough of a unifying cause to see old objections and old norms broken by the common need for a common good.

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