A New Moonshot?

I just watched First Man. It’s the story of Neil Armstrong, astronaut, father, and husband. It’s a gripping movie, evocatively filmed, quietly and compassionately told, as much about the man and his grief as it is about the technical accomplishment of getting to the moon. It filled me with nostalgia for a time when America took on the impossible and succeeded. In 1962, John F. Kennedy stood before the nation and declared, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”  

For millions of years humans believed that going to the moon was impossible. Marshaling our imagination, wherewithal, and ingenuity, we overcame hardened beliefs that held us earthbound. Thousands of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, accountants, doctors, and astronauts committed themselves to solving the problem of going to the moon. A decade of work and sacrifice and lessons learned culminated with a giant leap for mankind.  

As a nation and as a world, we haven’t had anything like that since. But now we do. We’re going to have to step up and solve the much bigger and more impactful problem of global climate change. 

 It’s happening right before our eyes. We see it in more frequent and more extreme weather-related events: more hurricanes more violently pounding our shores, forest fires setting records for intensity and breadth, flooding in abnormal places and seasons, massive and unpredictable winter storms. Just this month, the federal government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment (https://nca2018.globalchange.gov) which reports that the impacts of climate change are already being felt by our most vulnerable communities. 

In October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a landmark report authored by the world’s leading climate scientists. The report (http://www.ipcc.ch/) is full of good and bad news. Well, mostly bad. Warming of the atmosphere is accelerating. The effects of that warming are already being felt by frontline communities around the world. Those effects will only worsen as global atmospheric temperatures rise. An increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius will have dire consequences and that increase is likely to occur by 2040. Just this past week, researchers with the Global Carbon Project reported that that global emissions of carbon dioxide are reaching the highest levels on record, at a time when they need to be drastically curtailed.   

The situation is dire. The good news in the report is that we have 12 years to once again deploy our imagination, wherewithal, and ingenuity to solve this problem. We can do it. We have four more years than John F. Kennedy gave us to get to the moon. And, we don’t have to invent any new technology or figure out new math to solve this problem. The technology already exists to do it now. We can make our homes and cars and airplanes more efficient. We can expand our reliance on carbon-free energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. We can sequester carbon and wean ourselves from fossil fuels. And despite the screeches from old men touting old ways, we can do so and not kill the economy. Just like going to the moon, tackling this problem will create new industries and require new skill-sets that lead to new jobs. If we take this on as we should, it will “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” 

The problem with climate change is that the future can’t vote, and carbon has lobbyists. But, of all things, climate change should not be a partisan issue. We’re all affected by the climate we live in. There’s no avoiding it, unless you make like Neil Armstrong and leave the planet. We all breathe the same air. We all want the best for our children and grandchildren. Of all issues, this one seems the least controversial.  

That it’s not is due to the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to undermine our faith in science itself. These efforts have had dire consequences, not just for the actual climate, but for our political climate as well.  What we have instead of political will is a failure of leadership. Where once we had brave leaders willing to make hard choices, we now have a scrum of bought politicians and craven hacks. 

It would seem easy then, to throw up our hands and give up. But we didn’t give up on the moon, even though at the time many politicians on both the right and left opposed the project. It’s easy to forget that part of history, because on July 20, 1969 one small step transfixed and transformed the entire planet. 

Science and heroes and champions who stood strong in the face of political opposition got us to the moon. What we lack now are civic-minded, servant leaders asking what they can do for their country, rather than what their country can do for them. What we lack are leaders willing to take on things on because they are hard. 

Going to the moon taught us much about space travel and led to advances in technology and science. The benefits were broad, but not nearly as broad as tackling climate change would be. Those most impacted by climate change are generally those with the least amount of political clout. Frontline communities around the world are already affected. Here in North Carolina, Hurricanes Matthew, Florence, and Michael have slammed the communities least able to absorb the brunt of their impacts. People have died. Families have suffered, and many continue to feel the effects, long after the television cameras have left.  

Where going to the moon was a political and technical endeavor, climate change is at heart a moral issue. Taking it on requires the best of us, our best skills, our best science, our best innovation, and our best selves.

Leave a Reply