“If we want to tackle climate change, we can,” writes Apollo Program historian Charles Fishman. “It can be solved with a moonshot in the sense of rallying Americans to a purpose, to a mission, to something that takes incredible effort. With leadership and clarity of purpose. We just need to be asked.”
On the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first trip to another planet, Fishman’s new book One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon joins other recent histories of the Apollo 11 mission in calling on America to apply the same ingenuity and commitment that sent astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and brought them back alive in the summer of 1969 to a government-led effort to fight climate change today.
“If Apollo showed us one thing, it is that America can succeed in solving complex problems. We have one right now, and we can’t afford to ignore it. The priority isn’t to send a human to another planet; it’s to save the only one we call home,” writes USA Today in an editorial.
The triumph of the Apollo program has often been cited by NASA backers as a rationale for return trips to the moon and other spending on human space exploration…A better approach when applying the lessons of Apollo is an expansive one.
If there is a great scientific and engineering puzzle that needs to be solved now, it is climate change. The same combination of determination and smarts that landed men on the moon can, and must, be deployed to avert the catastrophe of rising sea levels, extreme weather and other disastrous effects of the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Blast Off or Peter Out
Though the 50th anniversary of the moon shot has given the idea of an Apollo Project for climate change new currency, this idea is not new.
In 2003, a coalition called the Apollo Alliance in San Francisco sought to unite labor unions, industry and environmental groups around a new “Apollo Project” to revitalize the American economy built around a $300 billion, 10-year effort to accelerate the transition to clean energy. The group appears to be defunct.
More recently, in 2015, the London School of Economics launched the Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change. The idea was to spend $15 billion a year (their estimate of the annual cost of the Apollo space program in current dollars) for ten years, to develop clean energy and smart grid technology to make renewables cheaper than coal within a decade.
Fortunately, just four years later, renewables are already cheaper than coal, not to mention natural gas and nuclear power. Indeed, solar and wind have become the cheapest source of electricity in all major countries around the world.
And I haven’t heard that it cost any government $15 billion a year to make this happen. Indeed, private industry seems to brought down the cost of renewable energy without much help from governments. In the United States, the federal government has given crumbs to renewables while continuing to dole out lavish subsidies to fossil fuels greater than the U.S. defense budget.
Still, the growth of clean energy has not been fast enough to stop greenhouse pollution from growing and to even slow the climate from heating. To have any hope to stop catastrophic levels of climate heating, the world will have to abolish fossil fuels altogether in the next couple decades.
So, surely, the world, and its worst polluter, the United States, could use an Apollo-style effort by government to urgently marshal science, business and public policy to take serious action?
But it won’t be like the Apollo Program for one big reason.
Exxon Wasn’t Fighting Against Going to the Moon
There was no moneyed special interest fighting against sending humans to the moon. Indeed, it was pretty much the opposite. Aerospace and related industries were happy to take NASA’s money to develop and build the technology that made Apollo 11 possible.
While companies that make solar panels and operate wind turbines are happy to make more sales, these companies are relatively weak politically.
As a result, no big federal program comparable to NASA in the 1960s is handing out piles of cash to move renewables along today. Aside from paltry federal subsidies, currently due to downgrade or expire soon, solar and wind must rely on the kindness of states. And states vary in their support for renewables, from California and northeastern states, which do a lot, to midwestern and southeastern states which may offer little or no help to renewables, and may actually discriminate against solar and wind to protect monopoly electric utilities and fossil fuel producers.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies continue to receive those big subsidies I mentioned. That helps to make oil and gas drillers profitable. And they spend some of those profits on lobbying and propaganda against climate science. So far, the biggest barrier to climate action in the U.S. has been opposition by the fossil fuel lobby. And until Big Oil and Big Coal get with the program or get out of the way, it’s unlikely that America will take any serious action to cut greenhouse pollution.
So, when it comes to dealing with the biggest obstacle to climate action, a more relevant example than the Apollo Program may be the effort to abolish slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In that effort, in the British Empire alone and not counting the United States, enslaved people taken as “property” were worth about $15 trillion in today’s money. That turns out to be just about the value of the fossil fuels that must be left in the ground — and thus written off the books of oil, gas and coal companies — if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate heating.
No wonder those companies have fought back, just as slaveowners fought abolitionists in the 19th century. No company wants the government to put them out of business, even if that’s the price of saving humanity.
Governments that plan to get serious about abolishing fossil fuels will have to address the massive political power of fossil fuel companies, an issue that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson didn’t face in sending men to the moon.
But there’s another way that the 1960s space program can inspire climate activists today: in building public opinion and political will.
Most Americans Opposed the Moon Shot — Until they Didn’t
The U.S. space program wasn’t always a given. In 1961, when President Kennedy first made his now historic call on Americans to mount an all-out effort to reach the moon by the end of the decade, the challenges were not only technical. Perhaps more importantly, throughout the 1960s right up until the moon launch took off in 1969, half of Americans opposed spending the money needed.
It wasn’t just hippies and Civil Rights leaders who thought that NASA’s budget could be better spent on earthly priorities like fighting poverty. The majority of space scientists also were lukewarm at best, fearing that the moon launch as rushed, or at worst, dismissive, seeing little research benefit in sending humans to the moon.
As Eric Benson writes in Texas Monthly:
Fiscal conservatives fumed. “We’re going to go broke with this nonsense!” remarked the president’s own father, former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Joseph Kennedy. Scientists thought Kennedy’s proposed time span was fanciful. The Austrian theoretical physicist Hans Thirring told U.S. News and World Report, “I am quite sure it will not be done within the next 10 years, and I think it very likely not to happen within the next 30 years or 40 years.” And social reformers would come to see the Apollo program as a drain on needed resources. Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League, noted that America could “lift every poor person in the country above the official poverty standard” for a fraction of the cost of putting two men on the moon.
Right after the mission’s success, the Apollo launch became Americans’ favorite government science program. Later, the moon launch effort became a model for decades of a heroic effort by government to recruit industry to apply science for the good of mankind, as Benson explains:
Apollo 11 was immediately celebrated as a signal human achievement. Greeting Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins after they returned to Earth, President Richard Nixon said, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation!” And in the decades since, the moon landing has only grown in reputation. NASA has called it humanity’s “single greatest technological achievement of all time,” and polling has shown a steady increase in the public’s belief that the space program was worth its high cost. Pop culture touchstones like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 have celebrated the courage and resourcefulness of the original astronauts and the genius of the engineers and scientists who powered them into the heavens. Watch oversaturated 1960s footage of one of those mighty Saturn V rockets erupting off the ground and try not to swoon.
So, given the American public’s historic confusion about climate science and indifference towards serious solutions — though that may be changing now — the climate movement could certainly use a success like that of the Apollo 11 mission to boost public support today.
A high level of public support will be needed, but not to demand big federal budgets for science and technology as in the Apollo Program. After all, now we already have solar, wind and the other clean technologies needed to cut enough greenhouse pollution to avoid climate disaster.
“Apollo represents the best of our American spirit,” writes historian David Carlin.
It represents exploration and innovation, hard-work and team-work, as well as the relentless desire to push the limits of human possibility. Our history is one of big dreams. We dug the Panama Canal, built the Hoover Dam, sent a man to the moon, and sequenced the human genome. These accomplishments have become part of our national identity. We should be similarly audacious today. Let’s pledge to wipe out cancer or address the challenges of climate change head-on. Regardless of the mission, let us remember Apollo and shoot for the moon.
Today, public support is needed to solve the political problem of abolishing fossil fuels in the face of the political power of Big Oil and Big Coal. Americans have been inspired by big dreams of exploration and innovation in the past. Those big dreams — a positive, not a negative vision — will be key to recruiting the public in an all-out transition to a clean economy. We have the technology to do it. All we need is the political will.
A solar array on every roof. A wind farm in every state. An electric vehicle in every garage.
Getting people excited about technology is a start. But the real Apollo Project to triumph over climate change will be political.
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot