The Apollo Lords – Shooting for the Stars? Or the Foot?

by | Jun 4, 2015

The climate debate has seen much history dragged into the present, to be served up again as hollow pastiches in environmentalists’ and climate activists’ shallow morality plays. Unable to make their own history, greens have to recycle moments from the past, to give their cause historical significance in the present. There have been green ‘New Deals‘. Martin Luther King’s words were altered to make a green message — a climate ‘fierce urgency of now‘. There have been comparisons of abolition with mitigation, allowing academic activists to claimt that climate sceptics were the latter day moral equivalent of slave traders. Some activists have gone further than mere figurative allusions, and dressed themselves up as ‘climate suffragettes‘. But my favourite has been the “climate change is our moon landing”, beloved of erstwhile UK chief Science Advisor, David King.

Kennedy’s famous moon landing speech outlined the ambition to put men on the moon within a decade. And so it is no surprise that a decade is the time frame chosen by the latest venture to bear King’s name…

King is one of six climate aristocrats — the others are all Peers — that have put together the ‘Global Apollo Programme’ (GAP), which wants the same proportion of GDP spent by each member country as the US spent on its own moon-shot.

The top table of Gap is as follows.

Sir David King, Former UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. Lord John Browne, Executive Chairman at L1 Energy. Former President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former CEO BP. Lord Richard Layard, Director of Wellbeing Programme, LSE Centre for Economic Performance. Emeritus Professor of Economics. Lord Gus O’Donnell, Chairman, Frontier Economics. Former UK Cabinet Secretary. Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Former President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge & Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics. Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, LSE, & Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Lord Adair Turner, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of New Economic Thinking & Former Chairman of the Financial Services Authority and the Committee on Climate Change.

This blog has never objected to increased emphasis and budgeting on energy R&D. Contrary to the comments made about energy by notable environmentalists, more energy is a good thing…

“It would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy.” — Amory Lovins

“Giving inexpensive and abundant energy to Americans today would be like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” — Paul Ehrlich.

Environmentalism, it is argued here, has always been, and is necessarily about locating political authority in a particular view of humans, society and its relationship with the natural environment. Abundance, or even just the promise of abundance, is anathema to that view. Even abundance in the abstract sense divorces us from nature. A theological comparison pertains here with The Fall. The limits of nature are there to discipline us, to constrain our vices, and to impose the order that our sins turn to chaos.

On the optimistic, humanist view, however, more energy is a good thing precisely because it frees us from such limits which invariably result in suffering. But abundance threatens the political order imagined by today’s secular ascetics. So it is a surprise to see the leading proponents of far-reaching climate malthusianism now openly calling for R&D.

The question that needs to be asked about any claim for R&D expenses, though, must be ‘what for?’. Energy R&D is not a good thing in-and-of-itself. Energy is a Good Thing for us. The new Global Apollo Programme seems to want energy to be for the climate.

The contradiction here is one that the GAP cannot understand. It sounds great, to find a source of energy which is as cheap as coal within a decade. But this would be no leap equivalent to landing on the moon, because it would not yield any benefit to us greater than burning coal. Moreover, the same R&D budget not restricted to the green sector might create the possibility of new sources of fossil fuels. It might accelerate the exploitation of methane hydrates, for instance. Or it could help in the development of techniques like underground coal gasification. Or fracking, of course. Restricting R&D to ‘green’ technology could conceivably carry the consequence of precluding such developments which would make fossil fuels more abundant and less expensive, thereby denying those who would benefit from it the advantages of any new technology. The best that GAP offers us is life a decade hence as good as today.

The report produced by GAP claims that

One thing would be enough to make it happen: if clean energy became less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas or oil. Once this happened, the coal, gas and oil would simply stay in the ground. Until then fossil-fuel-based energy should of course be charged for the damage it does, but ultimately energy should become able to compete directly on cost. How quickly could this happen?

The challenge is a technological one and it requires a major focus from scientists and engineers. The need is urgent. Greenhouse gases once emitted stay with us for well over a century. It would also be tragic if we now over-invested in polluting assets which rapidly became obsolete.

In the past, when our way of life has been threatened, governments have mounted major scientific programmes to overcome the challenges. In the Cold War the Apollo Programme placed a man on the moon. This programme engaged many of the best minds in America. Today we need a global Apollo programme to tackle climate change; but this time the effort needs to be international. We need a major international scientific and technological effort, funded by both public and private money. This should be one key ingredient among all the many other steps needed to tackle climate change which have been so well set out in the latest reports of the IPCC.

On GAP’s view, finding a technology to exploit renewable resources such that they become as cheap as coal is nothing more than just scientific investigation. But what if such a discovery were never possible? What if it turns out that it is, after all, harder to turn ambient energy into useful energy than it is to turn energy-dense substances into energy?

The key to this miraculous discovery lies in another chart produced by GAP.

I love these charts, because they mean absolutely nothing. What are the pillars supporting? And in what sense are storage, transmission and efficiency ‘foundations’ for the pillars? They would make more sense if they were labelled, ‘Sunday’, ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’ from the bottom, followed by ‘Wednesday’, ‘Thursday’, ‘Friday’ across. Says the GAP,

For three of these six areas (which are shaded in the diagram) there is already a high level of research effort. For example, in nuclear fission there is the G4 international programme to produce a much more efficient use of uranium whereby enrichment occurs on site; in nuclear fusion there is the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) programme. But in the three unshaded areas (renewables, storage and transmission) there is far too little research and the present proposal focusses on those areas.

But how true — or significant — is this?

Figures from the OECD and IEA seem to bear out the proportions. (I haven’t been able to locate the precise amounts of funding). (There seems to be some data missing from the series, and the reduction in funding may be a result of quality. Also, I am assuming that this is government expenditure, not including private funding of R&D).

But think about what is being produced here. The proof of concept of a new solar PV cell would fit in your hand. But a proof of concept for nuclear fusion or fission would likely require a great deal more hardware, real estate infrastructure and thus capital, just to get off the ground. For this reason, also, state funding of R&D might be filling a gap in nuclear, so to speak, which potential developers could close for themselves in the storage and solar sectors. GAP’s comparison might not be one of apples and apples.

Moreover, if there is an urgent need to address the problem, in what way is the $5 billion of global R&D budget for nuclear energy ‘enough’? It wouldn’t even be enough to build a nuclear power station. Given that Nicholas Stern — one of the leaders of GAP — imagines a world in which climate change costs integer percentages of global GDP, and argues for similar expenditure or opportunity cost on mitigation, it hardly seems like a sensible claim. Even more so, when we consider that energy storage will always add a cost to generation, and that generation of power from renewables might never compete with coal. Einstein’s equation, on the other hand, tells us what the material limits of yield from nuclear reactions are, and they are astronomical compared to even the most optimistic expectations of yield from renewable energy.

Again, this isn’t a throw-all-the-money-in-the-world-at-nuclear-R&D argument, mainly because I don’t believe the premises of GAP, that climate change is the urgent problem that Stern et al have claimed. But there is a better argument for investing in energy R&D for the good it will produce for people. And if climate change is an urgent problem, why spend such a paltry amount as $150bn a year on it? Why not spend as much on energy R&D as was spent on banking bailouts and quantitative easing throughout the Western world?

One answer returns us to the political utility of scarcity. In short, GAP is a manifesto for climate bureaucrats, and the promise to them is that they will be able to sustain their cake and eat it. It is only by making modest proposals, rather than by making promises of the deadly abundance, that the climate establishment can maintain its grip over the political agenda. The clue is in the programme:

(1) Target. The target will be that new-build base-load energy from renewable sources becomes cheaper than new-build coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide from 2025.

(2) Scale. Any government joining the Programme consortium will pledge to spend an annual average of 0.02% of GDP as public expenditure on the Programme from 2016 to 2025. The money will be spent according to the country’s own discretion. We hope all major countries will join. This is an enhanced, expanded and internationally co-ordinated version of many national programmes.

(3) Roadmap Committee. The Programme will generate year by year a clear roadmap of the scientific breakthroughs required at each stage to maintain the pace of cost reduction, along the lines of Moore’s Law. Such an arrangement has worked extremely well in the semi-conductor field, where since the 1990s the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) has identified the scientific bottlenecks to further cost reduction and has spelt out the advances needed at the pre-competitive stages of RD&D. That Roadmap has been constructed through a consortium of major players in the industry in many countries, guided by a committee of 2-4 representatives of each main region. The RD&D needed has then been financed by governments and the private sector.

Look at how quickly we skate through such petty little detail as how, in the space of just five years, this project will make solar power cheaper than coal in sunny countries, and how simple it will be for countries to join. But then look at how much detail there is about the committee, as it effortlessly reproduced Moore’s Law in an entirely different technology sector, as though laws such as Moore’s simply by designing the right institutional configuration.

Would we be surprised to find the names King, Browne, Layard, O’Donnell, Rees, Stern, Turner on this committee? They seem to be the names on almost every other climate boondoggle going?

The tone of the GAP’s report seems incredulous that the world has not already handed over all its cash to these six knights and peers of the realm.

We are talking about the greatest material challenge facing humankind. Yet the share of global publicly-funded RD&D going on renewable energy worldwide is under 2% (see Table 1).18 19 Remarkably the share of all energy research in total publicly-funded R&D expenditure has fallen from 11% in the early 1980s to 4% today. This is a shocking failure by those who allocate the money for R&D.

But hold on a minute, my Lords… Who, free from the excesses of party politics and democratic contest, has been in a position to advise governments on the best strategies to dealing with climate change? Your noble selves, that’s who. In fact you were appointed in precisely this capacity. But as yet, it has taken you decades to organise an effort to orient publicly-funded research.

There is no doubt that David King has argued for different research priorities. Here he is in 2008, arguing with Brian Cox, who later became as disappointing as King, for his misapprehension of the climate debate (amongst other things, including his religious conception of ‘science’).

As reported here at the time, King was jealous of the budget’s available to high-energy physics, its international profile and its superstar status. Particle physics is sexy, whereas people who bang on about climate change invariably express themselves in a nasal whine, and in contrast to the optimism of their counterparts in physics, are preoccupied with the negative implications of their science. King, for example, saw the search for the Higgs-Boson as so much ‘naval-gazing’, without useful application in a world at the brink of catastrophic change — a burden that he seemed to be shouldering all by himself, while others toyed with expensive hardware. Never mind the possibility that the work at Cern might produce insight useful for the development of nuclear energy.

King’s colleague at GAP, Martin Rees, takes a similar view of inappropriate scientific research priorities, as has been discussed here before. In Our Final Hour, Rees outlines his scare stories, amongst which are his estimate that the odds of the human race surviving this century are just 50%, and that by 2020 — five years into the GAP project — “bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event“. It was, after all, science which unleashed all that carbon. Science’s bureaucrats, then, are very good at making work for themselves.

Science has been very good, then, at telling us about what we must not do. But not so good at providing solutions to the problems its leading lights claim to have identified. As Climate Change Committee (CCC) member, Julia King, admitted, the CCC saw behaviour change as a key strategy in reducing emissions. Odd words, for a professor of engineering — unless it is behaviour she wants to engineer. And that seems to have been the emphasis of climate bureaucrats. As was pointed out in Rob Lyons’s interview with Bjorn Lomborg a few years ago, ‘Climate change: a practical problem, not a moral one‘. Said Lomborg,

If you do the standard Kyoto-style solution […] you do a couple of pence worth of good for every pound that you spend. But if you spent that same pound on energy R&D, you’d avoid £11 worth of climate damage – that’s 500 times more benefit. That’s why I’m suggesting we should be spending real money on tackling climate change, but we should be spending it smartly not stupidly.

But, of course, abundance creates a scarcity for the climate bureaucrat, who now scratches around for justification. It has taken so long for the climate change establishment to recognise the relatively strategies advocated by the likes of Lomborg, Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute because their ambition of creating a global political climate institution has been so long in its collapse. Political reality has caught up with environmentalism’s ambitions, and it is only now that the policy-down approach looks like it is about to collapse that the technology-up approach, seems to be gaining traction, and that the likes of Stern et al are pretending it was their idea all along.

It would not have been hard for the technology-up approach to have succeeded where the ambitious one-size-fits-all global policies have utterly failed. Financing R&D through microtaxes on energy consumption would have made some complain about the necessity of such a project, and the rights and wrongs of state intervention in innovation. But it would have been hard for those complaints to say that any real harm would come of it. Instead, climate sceptics can point to actual harm. There have been two decades of re-emphasis in the development agenda, which may have deprived millions of people access to energy, and increased energy costs in more developed economies, making life harder for millions of poorer families, and depriving many more of opportunity. We can compare the consequences of anti-technology (and in many instances, anti-human) policies to the emerging reality: that stories of climate catastrophe were simply overcooked, and intended to give momentum to a political project; that the implications of climate change are not as urgent as other problems faced by very many people; that development (not even ‘adaptation’) , including access to cheap energy, would be a better remedy to any likely perceivable consequences of climate change than radical mitigation; that hasty mitigation is itself harmful.

These things now being understood is a demonstration of the GAP project’s moral bankruptcy. We are supposed to take at face value the good faith of these six men. But in fact this latest move looks much more like six climate bureaucrats hedging their bets ahead of failure at Paris, and the shifting of the climate agenda.

If that sounds like I’ve over-egged the point, consider the concluding paragraphs from the Guardian’s coverage of GAP’s launch

Sir David Attenborough, who recently discussed climate change in a meeting with US president Barack Obama, said: “I have been involved in arguments about the despoilation of the natural world for many years. The exciting thing about the [Apollo] report is that it is a positive report – at last someone is saying there is a way we can do things.”

Prof John Schellnhuber, a climate scientist and former adviser to German chancellor Angela Merkel called the Apollo plan “truly ingenious” and said it “could well be a tipping point” in tackling climate change.

Is it conceivable that such learned figures such as Attenborough and Schellnhuber didn’t know of the existence of this form of idea — of spending around $15bn a year on energy R&D? Did they miss Lomborg’s book and film, “Cool It” — which contain much more detail than the GAP report? Or Pielke’s and the BTI’s volumes of work on the same theme? If it is true that they’d never considered the possibility before, it speaks to their bad faith nonetheless. They have no place commenting on climate change if they are new to this idea of solving the problem of climate change through technology. And so it is with the six knights and lords, who make no mention of Lomborg, either.

Tim Worstall puts it most succinctly:

These people are idiots, aren’t they?

Everyone and their grandmother knows that if you can design, invent or kludge together something that either:

Generates electricity cheaper than coal


Can store intermittently produced electricity cost effectively

…then you’re likely to become the world’s first dollar trillionaire. It’s, how to put this, uncertain, that any more incentive is needed.

Idiots, they surely must be. In fact, doesn’t this story of a King, and his defenders of the Realm in search of the Holy Grail sound awfully familiar?

The Global Aoollo Programme arrive at the COP meeting in Paris…


  1. Mooloo

    The Apollo programme is a good metaphor for the climate change program.

    It was all about show — looking good rather than doing good. There has never been a valid reason for putting a man on the moon, other than propaganda.

    And once the propaganda victory was scored the US saw no sense in continuing to waste money, and the moon project was scrapped.

    It seems amazing to me that anyone who wants to defend wise spending on research should hold up the moon project as an example. To most scientists it was just a waste of money (and they argued so at the time).

  2. newminster

    Presumably if “fossil-fuel-based energy should of course be charged for the damage it does” this charge will be offset by a figure to represent the benefits.
    Don’t tell me; I don’t understand!

  3. Ben Pile

    Mooloo – There has never been a valid reason for putting a man on the moon, other than propaganda.

    There are so many scientific endeavours that could be described in that way, as the discussion between Brian Cox and David King revealed. King thought the LHC was ‘navel gazing’, and a waste of money in the face of more (allegedly) pressing concerns. But there is no need for a ‘valid reason’ for a moon shot any more than there is a reason needed for scaling Everest: ‘because it is there’.

    Here’s what Kennedy said:

    “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

    Of course Kennedy wanted an edge in a global ideological battle. And of course, the technology developed had applications in the same battle.

    What Kennedy said is interesting, taken either at face value, or as expression of the prevailing ideology, and in the context of the historical situation. Similarly, it is interesting to compare yesterday’s Moon Landing in each of those respects with today’s Grand Projets. Which is what I tried to do here a few years ago. Kenendy’s speech seemed to make science a liberating force in contemporary society, notwithstanding the limitations imposed by geopolitical conflict. Today, ‘science’ now seems to intend to limit society in the way that the Cold War did, counterposed, as it seems to be, to creating the possibility of material abundance, never mind the spirit of ‘exploring the stars’ (or the substance of the stars, as shown by King’s antipathy towards the LHC).

    A politician calling for a cure for cancer within a decade would be ‘ideological’, and ‘propaganda’. I don’t think we should be worried about these things. The problem comes when we aren’t allowed to interrogate them as such, and when science is used to pretend that they aren’t ‘ideology’ and propaganda.

  4. Mooloo

    There are so many scientific endeavours that could be described in that way,

    But Ben, putting a man on the moon is not a scientific endeavour. The science, what little there was, could have more easily done robotically — as indeed all current extra-planetary science is.

    Doing something physical, because it can be done, is not science. Climbing Everest advances humanity not one jot. People may find it inspiring, but that puts it in the same class as the Arts, not the sciences.

    I object strongly to huge boondoggles like most hostile environment trips by humans — whether space, mountains, Antarctic or deep sea — as being described as “scientific”. A person really interested in science would make 100 trips for the same cost by remote means. They carry the label “science” to gain prestige and hide the fact that they are for personal or national glory.

    Putting a man on the moon was a triumph of engineering, not science.



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