Could patriotic fervour spark governments to combat global warming?

Forty-five years after Apollo 11 landed US astronauts on the moon to Soviet dismay, it is argued that nationalism could kick-start governments into tackling climate change ahead of next month's summit in New York.

Photo taken during the Apollo 11 space mission of Earth and the tropical storm Bernice in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California. Courtesy Nasa
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When John F Kennedy announced, in May 1961, the American goal of putting a man on the Moon inside a decade, the context was clear. The United States was embroiled in perhaps the hottest moment of the four-decade-long Cold War with the Soviet Union.

The Berlin Wall would go up that summer; the Cuban Missile Crisis would follow the next October. In 1957, the Soviet Union had shocked the US with the launch of Sputnik, an unmanned satellite launched into orbit. Before anyone in the US was even aware that there was, or could be, such a thing as a “space race”, the country learnt that it was behind – perhaps irrevocably so. The nation fell into a panic over Soviet capabilities in maths and science, and schoolchildren were urged on in their studies, for the good of the nation.

The US fell further behind after the launch of Sputnik 2, bearing a dog named Laika, and the race seemed entirely over once Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in April 1961. “They just beat the pants off us,” the astronaut John Glenn lamented after Gagarin’s successful mission. “There’s no kidding ourselves about that. But now that the space age has begun, there’s going to be plenty of work for everybody.”

Jerome B Wiesner, the head of President Kennedy’s science advisory committee, suggested that the Soviets were so far ahead in the space race that the country would be best off to “concentrate on aeronautics … and yield the space race to the Russians”. But Kennedy felt the long-term standing of the US depended on the achievements of its astronauts, and empowered the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).

Space was intended to be a realm beyond great power squabbles. On the day three Apollo 1 astronauts died in a launch-pad fire in January 1967, Neil Armstrong was at the White House with President Lyndon B Johnson, bearing witness to the signing of an international treaty that forbade any country from claiming land on the Moon, Mars or any other planet. The space programme was to be the pride of not just the American people, who had bankrolled the decade-long effort to reach the Moon, but the world.

And yet, when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969, Jay Barbree informs us in his new biography, Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight, they also planted an American flag on its surface, one "stiffened with wire so that it would appear to fly on the airless Moon".

“For one priceless moment in the whole history of man,” President Richard Nixon said, lauding Armstrong and his fellow astronauts, “all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”

The Earth might be one, but the American flag appeared to fly on the Moon, nonetheless – a not-too-subtle reminder of which nation had pulled off the coup of journeying the 384,000 kilometres between our planet and its orbiting moon.

Armstrong wanted to take a photograph of the unprecedented occasion, but realised, to his dissatisfaction, that he had already erased his footprint by stepping again in the same spot. Instead, Armstrong left behind a series of keepsakes: mementoes of five dead astronauts, including Gagarin and the three Americans killed in Apollo 1; the diamond-encrusted pin that was to be worn by the Apollo 1 astronauts; and, Barbree hints, a private remembrance of his daughter, Karen Anne, who had died at the age of 2. This was a personal event for Armstrong, a national event, a universal event and a collaborative event among astronauts, all at once.

The speech, the treaty and the flag; herein, we have the mixed messages of the American campaign to emerge triumphant in the proxy war of space exploration. The US pledged to eschew nationalism in the supposedly collaborative, extranational, humanity-wide campaign to breach the frontiers of space, but felt the need, on Armstrong’s setting foot on the Moon, the culmination of this mission, to fly the country’s flag, thereby undercutting its message of humanity’s unity. It would be only too easy to critique American jingoism or the mixed messages that allowed the US to celebrate humankind being “truly one” while also planting its flag on the Moon. But would Armstrong ever have reached the Moon without the mental image of that flag prodding the US forward?

From our market-besotted, austerity-clipped era, it’s difficult to understand the space programme. How could so much time, so many resources and so much money be spent on such a noble but relatively pointless endeavour? And why was the US willing to bear so much of the cost by itself, rather than seeking to collaborate with, say, Britain or France? The answer lies in that wire-stiffened flag, and its implications may bear some indication of the role that nationalism can potentially play in the wildly expensive, universal, noble and entirely not-pointless endeavour of our time: combating climate change. Man reached the Moon because two nations with a deep-seated rivalry and the means to fight pitched combat on a variety of fronts were willing to finance a decade-and-a-half of research and exploration. The US spent approximately US$34 billion (Dh124.89bn) on the space programme in the years leading up to the moon landing. In retrospect, the idea is ludicrous: what strategic advantage was likely to be accrued from sending an astronaut into orbit, or planting a flag on the Moon? The answer is that it was less about any tangible benefit than the secondary effects of demonstrating the strengths of capitalism – or communism – to accomplish the seemingly impossible. The Soviet Union and the US invested precious resources in the space programme, rather than in combating poverty or building their nuclear arsenals, because they believed that it would reflect well on their countries and poorly on their rivals.

When Armstrong was asked why we should go to the Moon, he argued that it was “because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul. We’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream”. But how far would Armstrong, private citizen, have made it toward the Moon without the might of the US government, and its belief in the benefits of space travel, behind him?

The space race was a staggered, back-and-forth competition between warring superpowers. The US and the Soviet Union planned and launched missions in the hopes of trumping their rivals, and were bitterly disappointed by the numerous setbacks, both small and tragically large, along the way. “For us,” wrote one Soviet space official, Lev Kamanin, in his diary after one particularly bruising failure, “this day is darkened with the realisation of lost opportunities and with sadness that today the men flying to the Moon are named Borman, Lovell and ­Anders, and not Bykovsky, ­Popovich or ­Leonov”.

For the astronauts personally engaged in the race, though, dreams of individual triumph were superseded by the hope that there would be a victor. Hardly anyone today has heard of Alexei Leonov, although, if everything had gone according to plan, Leonov, and not Armstrong, would have been the first man on the Moon. But the Soviet N-1 rocket that he was to take into space exploded on the launch pad in February 1969, and it became clear that American astronauts would be the first to reach the Moon. “From his heart he offered good wishes and good luck to his brother,” Barbree writes of Leonov. “‘We ride with you, Neil Armstrong. Have a safe flight.’”

Today, the American space programme is in tatters, requiring rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, the international community has gathered, in Kyoto, Copenhagen and elsewhere, with the best of intentions to once and for all place a roadblock in the way of climate change. But the treaties and accords have broken down by virtue of that same internationalism. Without everyone’s agreement, why bother to get serious about climate change? China or the US or India will only undo all the advances that others have made. The US is still burdened by fact-challenged debates over climate change, pitting hard science and countless studies on its effects against right-wing politicians and junk scientists peddling bad statistics and worse science. And other countries are reluctant to lead if the US, which produces far more than its share of carbon pollution, does not follow. Armstrong’s triumph, and the flag that he planted, hints that the solution may lie in embracing the cause of climate change as a distinctly national mission. In a world of renewed great-power rivalries, successes can serve as embarrassments for the laggards and prods to avoid the stain of failure.

Nations can not only spur on their own innovation, but transform the dilapidated world of climate-change negotiation into a race in which no one wants to bear the shame of coming in last. Climate change allows smaller countries to surge ahead. The UAE was singled out by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon as “a regional power, popularising actions on the ground.” Ban, visiting for the recent Abu Dhabi Ascent meeting, in advance of the climate meeting next month in New York, singled out the Shams 1 Solar Power Plant and the sustainable Masdar City development as examples of forward-thinking, energy-efficient projects.⊲⊲⊲

The West once believed in a post-superpower world, in which the US would reign unopposed, a silent, peaceful hegemon. The disastrous 2003 invasion and war in Iraq, China’s economic boom and Russia’s new claws-out brutality have rendered that worldview increasingly incorrect. Great-power policy is once more about proving a case: about demonstrating the efficacy, and the superiority, of a particular approach to governance. The US used the moon landing as part of a multifaceted, infinitely complex public-relations campaign arguing the benefits of democracy. Whatever Nixon might have said, reaching the Moon was not merely a human accomplishment; it was an American one.

Climate change offers a different set of factors. Without Armstrong setting foot on the Moon, the world would be entirely unchanged, if significantly poorer in spirit. But without serious, concerted efforts to combat climate change, the world will soon face irrevocable changes to its weather patterns, crop growth and the continued sustainability of its low-lying areas. Sceptics will pounce, but a 2012 study by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison argued that the warming temperatures in the arctic have led to an increase in disastrous weather – storms, hurricanes, tornadoes – in North America and Europe. And while total crop growth will only dip slightly because of climate change, a study by Cynthia Rosenzweig of Columbia and Oxford’s Martin L Parry argued that developing countries are likely to bear the worst of it, increasing the disparities in cereal growth between developed and developing countries. Low-lying island countries like Kiribati and the Maldives run the ever-increasing risk of disappearing entirely under the ocean because of the melting of the polar ice caps. These are just some of the many effects that scientists believe are due to arrive, or are already here, from climate change.

Three new books on climate change and its potential fallout by the veteran science writers Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben and Jeremy Shere testify to the risks of inaction, even as they concentrate primarily on American responses to environmental degradation. Climate change is no longer a threat, or even a potential outcome; it's a reality, and the only question is whether we're capable of facing up to its challenges, and how to efficiently change our dismal global record on the issue. In a world facing the imminent loss of at least 9 per cent, and as many as 52 per cent, of its animal species because of climate change, as Kolbert argues in her impassioned The Sixth Extinction, the time for dithering is long gone.

"Will American engineers fail to grasp this matter and carry it through to a successful completion?" Shere quotes an 1893 Chicago Tribune article in his book Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy, surveying the unprecedented achievement of using the falling water of Niagara Falls to power the World's Fair of that year. "And shall the proverbial confidence of American capitalists shrink from investment in an enterprise which, besides being almost sure of commercial success, will advertise American genius to the assembled nations of the world?" What was good for business was also good for advertising the country. And what better way to advertise national genius than to bear down on solving a problem of unique import for every country in the world?

Shere remains optimistic on his search of sustainable, expandable alternatives to fossil fuels. “Because energy is invisible and because we don’t have to think much about what energy is,” Shere argues, “how it’s made, and where it comes from, we tend to not think about energy at all or care about how it fits into and affects the bigger picture.”

Shere’s book is primarily a study of repeated failures – of turbine blades, installed just off the shore of Manhattan, broken by the force of the East River, or the 5,000 acres of land currently required to produce as much solar energy as one medium-sized coal plant. “Solar energy, like all renewable energy technologies, will have to struggle uphill to blossom,” Shere argues, even as he insists that “solar is on a roll the likes of which would have seemed utterly fantastic only a few decades ago”.

While still only producing less than one per cent of American energy, next-generation solar cells have ramped up the proportion of sunlight that they convert into electricity reaching an average of 20 per cent for commercial panels, with costs dropping in half in 2011 alone. But the US still lags far behind other countries in the percentage of its energy generated by renewables, producing only 6 per cent of its total energy from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy combined. Compare the US with Germany, which now produces 31 per cent of its energy from renewable sources.

Shere tours tidal-energy turbines and wind farms and geothermal-heat-exchange systems, most the product of scientific entrepreneurs who skirt the boundary between the epoch-defining and the unavoidably niche. We hear occasionally of government encouragement, but the results are inefficient and often counterproductive, such as the wind-energy tax credits that primarily serve as a tax dodge for the wealthy. Shere mostly concentrates on the US, where conservative intransigence and a continuing paralysis on the subject of climate change have rendered the federal government mostly a bystander, limply encouraging the increasing adoption of renewable energy – at best. What is true for the US is true for the rest of the world, as well: that the success of renewable energy depends on concentrated government effort to support its growth.

The long-time environmental advocate McKibben, meanwhile, has lost whatever remaining confidence he once had in the power of individual action to combat climate change and, as he records in his memoir Oil and Honey, has commenced taking the fight to Washington. McKibben is consumed by one particular figure: the 2,795 gigatonnes of energy estimated to still be trapped in the Earth, waiting to be consumed. By McKibben's estimation, this $28 trillion of resources is five times what the environment can handle without suffering irreparable consequences, and Oil and Honey is the story of his quixotic effort as an impromptu activist to plead with the US government and, by extension, the private oil companies intent on reaping those profits, to cease and desist.

McKibben’s vision of “a nation of careful, small-scale farmers” is patently ludicrous, impossible to actually be put into place, and yet his insistence that climate change is set to wreak unprecedented damage without immediate intervention by national governments is palpable. McKibben has gone so far as to purchase a farm for a beekeeper of his acquaintance – the “honey” of his book’s title – as a future inheritance for his daughter and a hedge against climate change.

McKibben directs his fire at President Obama and the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline transmitting Canadian oil from the tar sands of Alberta, even as he acknowledges that we can either have “a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet, but now that we know the numbers it looks like you can’t have both”. McKibben grasps the international aspect of climate change as a thinker even as he concentrates solely on shifting the course of American policy – a substantial enough achievement in its own right – as an activist. McKibben’s book, frustrating and illuminating (do we need to know about every one of McKibben’s email blasts?), is testament that, for democratic governments, policy is often shaped by insistent lone voices.

But governments, to say nothing of their citizens, are unlikely to be guilted or shamed into acquiescence. The lure of cheap gas for their cars and cutting-edge electronics for their homes is too tempting to overcome. Instead, combating climate change must be linked to national pride and identity in the same way that Americans and Russians cheered on the accomplishments of their astronauts. Countries must seek to “win” climate change the way their predecessors sought to “win” the space race.⊲⊲⊲

Standing on the Moon, Armstrong realised that he was there to glance back at Earth, to see our fragile, beautiful planet in all its radiant wholeness.

“Neil recognised it mattered little if we were Republican, Democrat, independent, apolitical, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or whomever the hell we liked or disliked,” Barbree writes.

“We lived on a vulnerable world and we needed to take care of its very definite resources; on a world where we all would suffer terrifying consequences if we destroyed its ability to sustain us, its ability to foster and nurture the very life we threatened to contaminate. Neil knew no matter how diligent, how great our effort to protect Earth, it was finite and one day if humans were to survive they would have to move on to new worlds. Helping to achieve that was what he and Buzz and all those who would follow were doing walking on the Moon.”

Armstrong’s mission retains its glimmer of magic because of its sheer glorious pointlessness. ­Humans went to the Moon primarily to prove we could. Doing so demonstrated for Armstrong how carefully we needed to protect and preserve our planet. If we fail to do so, the result will be a new space race, in which we search not for new horizons, but a new home to replace the one we needlessly squandered.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.