• Justin Schott

Part III - From Lackluster Lemons to Moonshots

The 1969 moon landing of the Apollo 11 mission was unforgettable, and nearly 50 years later, that story, particularly President Kennedy’s aspiration to make that happen, continues to be remembered fondly. Faced with something as bold and challenging and urgent as going net zero, there are important lessons to learn from moonshot thinking and the climate movement’s slowness to adopt a universal, rallying moonshot of its own.


Carbon is an insidious, invisible pollutant. Risk communication researchers have noted several reasons why addressing climate change is particularly difficult, which include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions are invisible and odorless

  • There is a major lag time for climate impacts (up to millennia(!) for sea level rise)

  • Impacts are not proportionately dispersed according to where pollution occurs (GHGs from the U.S. are largely felt in other locations thousands of miles away)

  • No individual storm or event can be directly attributed to climate change, and

  • Climate change is non-linear, meaning there may be cooler (or drier or wetter) than average periods that break up the trend

All of these factors mean climate change is less salient than other forms of pollution we are more familiar with. When the Cuyahoga River caught fire, around the same time as the moon landing in 1969, it was easier to sound the alarm: “Cleveland, we have a problem.” Even when all of the risks are known and respected, the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma” or “Tragedy of the Commons” thinking can lead parties to say, well, the U.S. won’t commit to reducing emissions until China and India are on board.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River, 1952.
This scene of an ugly fire on the Cuyahoga River, circa 1952, launched a call for protecting our waters and lead to the Clean Water Act of 1972 and fueled the environmental movement more broadly. Today, Great Lakes Brewing Co. remembers the event with its Burning River Pale Ale.

Stopping climate change is inevitably unsexy. If climate activists were already the underdogs, this unsexiness only makes matters worse. Even when emissions flatten and decrease toward zero, we will still be experiencing climate impacts for some time and will continue to have to adapt to them. There will not be a discrete declaration of victory when we can move on to something more exciting.


Since President Kennedy’s proclamation in September 1962 that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, “moonshot” thinking has become popular. To illustrate the inspiring power of such a bold mission, a fable has been told about a janitor the President approached while touring NASA facilities. According to the story, when Kennedy stopped to ask the man cleaning the floors what he was doing, he replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” The veracity of this story has been debunked, but the message it aimed to communicate still holds true.

For a long time, we have lacked an inspiring climate moonshot. Regular rallying cries for the esoteric climate crowd have included “80 by 50!” (which references a demand to cut GHG emissions 80% by 2050 (from a baseline year that varies, with 1990 being the most aggressive)), “3-5-0!” (for 350 parts per million of CO2, which may be the upper limit for “safety”), and 1.5C (even though many Americans cannot tell you the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit and a degree or two, whether in C or F, is imperceptible to our bodies). The numbers championed by both climate wonks and climate activists have paled alongside Kennedy’s man on the moon ambition.

80 by 50 and its cousins are what I call Lackluster Lemons. It’s possible that when they were first proposed, well over a decade ago before many more gigatons of carbon had been released, that the 80% by 2050 goal was scientifically aligned with limiting warming to 1.5C. No doubt the numbers arose from a place of the best intentions, a desire to align with the science, and an attempt to be realistic, because cutting emissions was thought to be costly, both economically and politically. But establishing these as normative goals may have backfired. The goals that were set to get us most of the way but not all the way to a carbon-free society are one of many reasons why we are where we are. And while there have been backers of these goals that I highly respect, I think it’s important that we accept their shortcomings.

I worked for a national environmental non-profit from 2007-2008, and it was one of many “big greens” that was on board with “80 by 50”. I can remember being part of marches and protests where the activists chanted passionately, “80 by 50! 80 by 50!” And I have to say, this didn’t get me fired up the way this one does: Call: “Tell me what democracy looks like!” Response: “This is what democracy looks like!”

In my daily line of work, we were asking colleges and universities to cut their carbon footprints 80 x 50, in alignment with our organizational goal. Not surprisingly, most presidents of higher education institutions preferred the “Presidents’ Climate Commitment” (PCC), which compelled each institution to commit to climate neutrality, aka net zero emissions. The timetable and implementation requirements of the PCC were open-ended, and there were some near-term structures to get started, such as conducting a greenhouse gas inventory and creating an action plan. The commitment’s flexibility was appealing, but I believe above all it was the moonshot feeling behind it that energized students to campaign for it and presidents to sign on. This was about legacy, and there could be no doubt that the action that was called for was dramatic, sweeping, and sufficient to address the magnitude of the climate crisis.

Beyond the underwhelming nature of Lackluster Lemons, there are other flaws. First, 80 by 50 assumes we are aiming for an exact stopping point, like the landing pad for a helicopter. But a better metaphor is we are on a massive train that is barreling toward a steeper and steeper descent and the brakes are shoddy at best. Even if there is a not a cliff we will drop off, we know the descent will accelerate at a terrifying pace and we could still be thrown from our seats. Given this situation, I don’t know anyone who would suggest applying steady and even pressure in hopes of stopping safely. If you were the conductor, I think you would jam on the brakes with all your might. If you happened to stop earlier than you absolutely needed to, I suspect the passengers would be thankful for your foresight and precaution, not wishing you had pushed it right to the edge and put everyone at risk because you wanted to be efficient in your braking. 80 by 50 implies there is a moderate path--one that many of us will not live to see.

The second issue with 80 by 50 is that it assumes 100% participation, 100% compliance, and 0% attrition. Under this scenario, we would only achieve 80 by 50 if every single country is meeting this target, which also means that every city, state, region, province, and every school, hospital, apartment building, and household is also contributing its share of reductions. Which is not how reality works. If we really want 80 by 50, we should be talking about 100 by 30 and assuming compliance and participation will be imperfect. There will be some underachievers and a very small number of overachievers who hit or exceed targets ahead of schedule. The 80 by 50 goal was set as if we were phasing out one small, discreet thing, when in fact 80 by 50 and 100 by 30 both require a complete overhaul of our economy and our way of life. The technical path to 80 by 50 is not radically different than the path to 100 by 30. Aim high, land where you need to be.

80 by 50 isn’t winning many hearts. No one wants to be 80% cancer free, 80% employed, 80% nourished, or 80% of the way to the moon. The minute I read 80%, I hear: “Mediocrity. Not fully bought in. Settling.” Imagine someone saying they wanted to be the first to break the barrier of running a 4 minute, 15 second mile, as opposed to the 4 minute mile. Walter George broke 4:15 in London in 1865, but I don’t imagine that was heralded as a recalibration of what humans thought was possible. Unlike Roger Bannister, Walter George’s name is not enshrined in the history books. Moonshots must demand our attention with their audacity.

Finally, 80 by 50 makes climate appear as an opaque, technocratic issue. If it were urgent, the problem would require a 100% solution, but if people are pitching 80%, then it is likely to be perceived as a nice accessory that allows plenty of time to get started and leeway for compromise. The lack of urgency allows support to ebb and flow with the mood of the times, rising when convenient but backing away in the face of threats or bigger obstacles.

It’s worth noting that the dominant discourse at the international climate meetings has suffered from Lackluster Lemons. It has not been about getting to zero, or how fast that can be done. It has been a smorgasbord of self-selected commitments, debate about funding and financial responsibility, and a whole lot of argument about procedure and verification mechanisms. When talk did center on targets, it was about the difference limiting warming between 1.5 and 2.0C, not net zero. By contrast, the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were endorsed by 191 nations in 2000, focused eradicating poverty and universal access to education, reproductive health services, and HIV treatment. Unlike the targets of multiple decades of climate negotiations, the MDGs were legitimate, inspiring moonshots.


I hope the case against Lackluster Lemons is clear; Lackluster Lemons are even more detrimental given the invisibility factors of CO2. That said, they remain the going currency for climate commitments from utilities, corporations, state mandates, ballot initiatives, and national governments alike. As the costs of renewables come down and reliability and access increase, there has, fortunately, been an uptake in 100% carbon free (or net zero) commitments that include usual suspects like the cities of Austin and Boulder and the entire state of California. But the reach of allies is much broader—the 407 “Climate Mayors” in the U.S. represent cities like Boise, ID and Bozeman, MT to Normal, IL and Norman, OK, and in our own backyard, Hamtramck and Highland Park, Rockwood and Royal Oak. And yes, Mayor Duggan is representing the D.

If we can agree on the need for a moonshot, then defining that moonshot may not be so difficult. But let’s start with some basic criteria for moonshots. Scott Anthony and Mark Johnson defined moonshots as: 1) Inspiring, 2) Credible, and 3) Imaginative. At Google, the Moonshot Factory (also known simply as X) says typical goals try to move us forward incrementally by 10% in contrast to X’s moonshots, like the self-driving car, that try to make ten-fold (10x) leaps forward.

For climate change, the obvious contender is net zero--or zero carbon or carbon free, I’m not sure about the best language. The timeline, however may raise debate. 2030 is certainly much more challenging to hit than 2050, and some may argue the credibility of it. But here’s the thing—2050 is more than a generation away, and many of the decision-makers who sign on to this will either have retired or been termed out long before 2050. There is much less accountability to 2050 and no cushion for delays or falling short. What becomes the norm matters, as we saw with the Lackluster Lemon of 80 by 50, which is still gaining traction today.

So here’s our moonshot at EcoWorks, we hope others will join in adopting it: Net Zero for Greater Detroit by 2030. This commitment is going to reshape or deepen many aspects of our work, which is both daunting and energizing.

But Net Zero by 2030 alone still leaves too much room for error. It could be achieved with a swath of new nuclear plants or privately held solar farms that result in even higher energy burdens for lower-income households and further monopolization, rather than democratization, of our energy supply. If we are not explicit about the need for climate and environmental justice, we will fall short as the environmental movement has many times in the past. Kennedy’s original moonshot, now widely celebrated decades later, faced numerous critiques for spending too much money on a program while the vast majority of non-astronauts, particularly people of color, struggled.

So Net Zero by 2030 needs to be anchored by another moonshot: Justice & Equity for All. This is a working title and will need more work to finalize, but we see this as being firmly rooted in the Bali Principles of Climate Justice. With 27 affirmations and demands, it calls for preservation of both cultures and biodiversity, asserts rights to decision-making and self-determination by indigenous people, women, marginalized and impacted communities, and future generations, and a broad shift away from commodification to a more holistic, respectful relationship with the Earth. The Jemez Principles for Environmental Justice are a powerful complement. Achieving net zero has to be a strategy for upholding these principles, advancing social and economic justice, and ensuring that a carbon-free world is of greatest benefit to those who have been most impacted by climate change.


Before we stake out a moonshot, we should be clear about our rationale and ensure that we are not just regurgitating some popular line about what’s needed. We don’t want to go to the moon just for the sake of it; this needs to be rooted in science.

For people who live in places that are especially vulnerable to climate impacts, no amount of additional warming is acceptable, and they face a likely future as climate refugees. But there is something to the consensus around 1.5C of warming, and I think this graphic from the IPCC spells out the risks nicely. Coral reefs are the canaries of our coal-fired power plants, followed by retreating glaciers. If it all melted, the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise sea levels an incomprehensible 20 feet and affect about 1 billion people living on the coast. Some of these impacts, like the loss of summer sea ice or the permafrost in the arctic, will also contribute to additional warming by increasing the absorption of sunlight by the ocean and releasing additional methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. Limiting warming to a peak of 1.5C would give us the best chance of saving the corals and other fragile ecosystems, keeping the huge ice sheets frozen, protecting hundreds of millions of people living near sea level, and avoiding a cascade of other tipping points. 1.5C is worth striving for.

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