Time for a new Apollo project: A climate-friendly economy

Time for a new Apollo project: A climate-friendly economy
© Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum | 59 Productions

Fifty years ago this month, a man took the first human steps on the moon. 

That accomplishment was launched as an aggressive policy goal by President Kennedy in 1961. The next year he spoke his now-famous words, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade…not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Less than a decade later, the world watched as Neil Armstrong descended a ladder and took his first step, his leap for all mankind.

It is time for a new Apollo project to transition the United States to a climate-friendly economy.

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Like the goal to walk on the moon, decarbonizing is a bold and audacious undertaking. Like the Apollo project, this new effort could harness the best in Americans, reposition our country as a leader in science and technology, build on decades of research, generate new jobs, inspire young and old, and create advances that will have enduring benefits throughout society. 

Like the Apollo project, we have about a decade. Unlike the Apollo project, failure is not an option.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned we have a little more than 10 years to limit warming to a level that can potentially avoid the worst catastrophic impacts of climate change. And climate impacts are being felt by our communities now: wildfires, droughts, heat waves, record-breaking rainfall, stronger hurricanes, rising seas. We are paying for these changes in dollars and human lives and the costs will continue to escalate. 

When Kennedy committed our country to walking on the moon, he didn’t know how we would get there. But he knew we had been researching space exploration for years and could build on that expertise. This is also true now for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Work by economists, engineers, scientists, business leaders, planners, and hosts of others have already laid the groundwork for how to turn the tide on the climate crisis. Like Kennedy’s goal, this one is ambitious and uncertain but achievable.

The space research undertaken by the United States leading up to July 20, 1969 produced benefits for society far beyond the moon voyage. What do we have today thanks to the Apollo project? NASA has chronicled many of the innovations we owe to the Apollo program, including digital flight controls; insulation now used in clothing, camping gear, buildings, and MRI machines; and memory foam. We can also thank Apollo for earthquake-resistant engineering, CAT scanners, microchips, shock-absorbing footwear and scratch-resistant lenses. Not to mention, retractable roofs, technology to reduce smoke inhalation among firefighters, solar power and cordless power tools that we enjoy today because of an effort to reach the moon.

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Could the R&D behind a climate-friendly transition produce similar spillover benefits for society? Absolutely.

But the intangible benefits of dedicating a country to a worthy and ambitious goal are possibly larger and impossible to quantify. National pride soared as we became the first country to walk on the moon. It is time to heal our current divisions in pursuit of another worthy goal, that of protecting the future of this planet and its people and in so doing, also investing in education and advancement to position us at the forefront of this century’s technological revolutions.

In inflation-adjusted terms the Apollo project didn’t quite hit $100 billion. That sounds like a big number, but over the last decade we have spent over twice as much — over $200 billion — in off-budget disaster supplementals. Just a fraction of what we are spending on disaster relief from climate-induced disasters, wisely allocated, could make substantial progress on a climate-friendly economy to lower the risks of those very events.

The Apollo program was a public-sector effort led largely within one agency (granted with myriad private-sector contractors). The goal was clear and success was visible literally in an instant: when Armstrong took his first step. Transitioning our economy and society to one that is climate-friendly will require work at multiple federal agencies and at multiple scales of government. It will require broader partnerships with the private sector beyond just federal contractors and also with non-governmental organizations. And when exactly we have succeeded may be hard to pinpoint to an instant.

So, solving the climate crisis will no doubt be messier. It could include federal dollars for R&D into battery storage as well as local civic groups planting more trees in their neighborhoods; innovations from car manufacturers as well as consumers demanding higher levels of energy efficiency in their appliances; federal subsidies for public transit as well as cities redesigning themselves to promote biking; greater use alternative fuels and more teleconferencing. The problem is vast, but it is clear that so are the solutions. Instead of being overwhelmed by the scale at which change is required, we could instead feel energized that we can begin solving this problem everywhere — anywhere, right here, right now.

Because of this, our new effort cannot be just an appropriation to one federal agency. It is not that simple. The current problem is harder. It must be a constellation of activities across scales and sectors united with a coordinated purpose. It will take trial and error. It will take discussion and collaboration and compromise. It will take good faith and trust in science and a willingness to learn together. 

The Apollo project took visionary leadership. It took teamwork at a scale unlike most other projects — around 400,000 were directly involved. And it took a federal government commitment to the endeavor, not just through funding but also incentives and supportive public policy. These three things are what we now need for a new Apollo project to succeed.

Kennedy also said, “our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort.”

Who will be our Kennedy in this moment to remind us of our abilities, our hopes, and our obligations? This is not a partisan project and neither was going to the moon. This is an American project, one that recognizes our global responsibilities and our local advantages. 

Carolyn Kousky is the executive director at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania.