/Project Syndicate: Mobilizing for a climate moonshot

Project Syndicate: Mobilizing for a climate moonshot


The Apollo program showed us that Earth is all we have.

LONDON (Project Syndicate) — The 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing in July reinforced an important lesson: one of humankind’s greatest feats occurred when imagination, common purpose, and a systemic approach to problem solving won out over siloed thinking and anxiety about where the money would come from.

As President John F. Kennedy made clear in 1961, going to the moon would cost money and entail risks, but it would be well worth it.

Kennedy understood that many of the lasting benefits of innovation happen not just at the end of the process, but along the way, through dynamic spillovers. And in the case of America’s moonshot, he turned out to be right. Much of the technology in our smartphones today can be traced back to the Apollo program and related missions.

Now that humankind is confronting the existential challenge of climate change, our survival depends on reclaiming the public spirit of the Apollo program — and the hope it inspired.

Imagine if we were to bring the same courage, spirit of experimentation, and willpower to bear on the greatest challenge of our time: climate change. Imagine having leaders who would proudly declare: “We choose to fight climate change 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, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

To be sure, the moonshot was motivated by America’s need for a victory — at once highly symbolic and tangible — in the Cold War. But, once the quest was started, it was about solving a specific problem. And, as is typical in most wars, completing the mission came first; worrying about how to pay for it came later.

Given the threat it poses, climate change should be confronted in the same way.

House on fire

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have just 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, or else invite disaster. Such warnings should be a wake-up call for those overseeing public and private budgets.

As the young climate activist Greta Thunberg puts it, we must approach the issue with the same urgency “as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

To that end, we should heed the primary lesson of the Apollo program: that inspiring people with hope in a mission is crucial to ensuring its success. In the case of climate change, that inspiration must involve rethinking how we organize our societies. We need to start thinking of ourselves as fundamental problem solvers once again.

That means, first and foremost, abandoning the prevailing, ideologically skewed view that governments are lumbering bureaucratic behemoths that cannot innovate. We are told civil servants cannot compare to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs when it comes to taking risks. And yet the moon landing — one of the riskiest endeavors of the past century — was a government project.

I have spent the last year working closely with the European Union to adopt a mission-oriented approach to its spending on innovation.

At the global level, though, the UN Sustainable Development Goals can define our future missions, from reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to removing plastic from the ocean. We must recognize that social missions are even more complex than purely technological ones: they require not just material adjustments, but also behavioral and regulatory change.

Transform governments

That means money is not enough. Governments also must be permitted to transform themselves for the mission at hand, by redesigning everything from their standard tools and instruments — such as procurement, grants, and loans — to their everyday operations.

Redesigning a large public system is not easy.

The first step is to consider what public policy is actually for. Rather than just fixing market failures, policy makers should view themselves as market makers, using their resources to create the flexible and adaptable structures for guiding a collective vision and establishing the conditions for bottom-up solutions to emerge.

Those solutions must collectively point to a green and circular economy — with all sectors transforming operations in such a way as to reduce their material content. Government subsidies should not be handouts; rather, they should be made conditional on reaching specific benchmarks. The word “deal” must be taken as seriously as the word “green” in the Green New Deal.

More broadly, the choice before us is not between government and the private sector. Turning the climate challenge into a set of concrete missions will require the involvement of all sectors — from public health and transportation to food, energy, and housing — as well as new applications of digital technology and artificial intelligence.

Formulating such missions will take creativity and first-hand knowledge: for example, urban planners and civic leaders could commit to designing 100 carbon-neutral cities worldwide by 2050.

A seat at the table

The Apollo program was relatively top-down, but modern moonshots will need to engage civil society. Who decides the mission — and then monitors it along the way — is just as important as actually completing it. Trade unions’ involvement should not be limited to securing a “just transition” for workers in legacy industries. Rather, they also should have a seat at the table for co-defining what the term “green” even means.

In a society wracked by populist discontent, it is critical that all citizens participate in transforming our society for the better. Making our towns, cities, and streets healthy and sustainable will require inspired action from everyone — and the urgent realization that we cannot afford inaction today.

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