Evaluating a Manhattan Project for climate change

Nirmal K. Bhatt* and Peter Heller

Edited by Kelly Hills-Muckey and Bertrand J. Neyhouse

Review | Aug. 31 2023

*Email: nirmalb@mit.edu

DOI: 10.38105/spr.n2f62bvcsx/


  • The Manhattan Project was driven by one person commanding a centrally controlled bureaucracy that had access to virtually unlimited funds and the brightest scientists and engineers across the U.S. No project in the history of humanity matches the Manhattan Project.
  • Current U.S. policy has made strides on climate and has centered community input and direction for domestic policy, but large-scale investments are still required both domestically and internationally.
  • The Manhattan Project approach is effective at providing technological solutions but is not set up to encourage collaboration and relies on the product of the project to be the solution for every problem, an approach that does not work with climate change.
  • Climate change requires a ‘technology-neutral’ approach where all possible technologies are pursued across sectors (renewable energy, nuclear fusion, synthetic fuels, hydrogen, etc.), and it must be combined with policy shifts and financial resources to reshape human society.
  • A mixed project framework that draws on the strengths of the Manhattan Project (government support, financial resources) along with infrastructure and social projects such as the New Deal and the Marshall Plan (large investments in infrastructure domestically and internationally) would be powerful in combating climate change.

Article Summary

Rapid global warming driven by human activity is altering the Earth’s ecosystems, and it is imperative for humanity to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing the challenges of climate change is a race against time, and while countries around the world have pledged to cut their emissions, progress is slow and the pledges are far from being achieved. The U.S. has faced challenges before that required a large investment of resources, financial and human, to achieve goals in a short time frame. The Manhattan Project is the largest of such projects and it operated with unlimited funds under a centrally controlled bureaucracy. We apply the framework of the Manhattan Project to the threat of climate change and consider its effectiveness in combating the challenges posed by climate change. We also analyze recent U.S. climate policy to compare and contrast it with a hypothetical Manhattan Project for climate. We find that the Manhattan Project approach, while effective at delivering technological advancements and working in secrecy, falls short at dealing with problems that require transparency and collaboration and that cannot be solved by ‘silver-bullet’ technologies.

Open Access


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Nirmal K. Bhatt

Technology and Policy Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

Peter Heller

Technology and Policy Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA