Updated: May 17
When the Soviet Union became the first nation to send a man into space in 1957, it seemed like the United States would lose the Space Race. Just twelve years later, America one-upped the Soviets by becoming the first nation to put a man on the moon. Since that time, politicians have suggested that America’s national effort to put a man on the moon serve as a model for accomplishing other goals, such as tackling climate change. If America could put a man on the moon, some ask, then shouldn’t we be able to solve climate change? Unfortunately, this comparison neglects some key differences between the Apollo Program and the immense challenge of climate change.
The most important difference between the Apollo Program and the challenge of climate change is the partisan nature of climate policy. The majority of Republicans in congress are opposed to any drastic solutions that would impact the oil and gas industries. There are a few who support a carbon tax, but even that is a bridge too far for most of them. By contrast, the Apollo Program was launched in the middle of the Cold War, when both Republicans and Democrats understood that winning the Space Race was a vital national interest. During the Eisenhower administration, one Republican member of congress named James Fulton went so far as to tell the head of NASA “Tell me how much money you need and this committee will authorize all you need.” At a time when congressional Republicans are hesitant to authorize money for COVID-19 relief, it would be too much to expect that they would be as enthusiastic as James Fulton when it comes to climate change.
A second important difference between the Apollo Program and the challenge of climate change is that taking on climate change requires a massive overhaul of the entire American way of life. For the vast majority of Americans, the Apollo Program had no impact on their everyday lives. The government spent billions on hiring scientists and building rockets, but unless someone lived near a launch site, they could go about their daily lives without noticing that their country was attempting to put a man on the moon. A program like the Green New Deal, or President Biden’s climate change policies, would require shifting millions of Americans out of fossil fuel industries and retrofitting millions of residential and commercial buildings. With an initiative this large, there are so many more stakeholders who would be impacted, and getting the initiative passed will be much more difficult than it was to put a man on the moon.
The only way that the bipartisan spirit of the Space Race can be harnessed to tackle climate change will be if the challenge of climate change is presented as a way of competing with China. China is eager to demonstrate to countries around the world that America’s democratic system is inefficient and unable to solve global challenges. America’s botched response to Covid-19 seemed to prove China right. Our next, best chance to demonstrate the power of American ingenuity is by out-competing China to develop clean energy technology. If Americans understand the challenge of climate change as a national security challenge, something I discussed in a previous blog post, then, as during the Cold War, Republicans as well as Democrats will have a stake in America’s success.