What the Cold War and the Space Race can tell us about climate change

Of the global challenges humanity has met in the past century, climate change arguably poses the biggest test for international collaboration.


Reactions to global challenges vary, but generally land somewhere on a scale between hostile and collaborative.

The Cold War was largely hostile and competitive, and ended with the dissolution of the USSR; deemed a victory for “The West”.

The Space Race was competitive in the start (i.e. Apollo vs. Vostok) but collaborative by the end (i.e. the International Space Station).

The challenge of climate change creates a similar set of potential outcomes, from the hostile to the competitive and all the way to the collaborative.

At one extreme, incentives to cheat – “environmental arbitrage” - provide higher profitability for polluters as pollution impacts are externalised. Those not cheating will face higher costs to abate the impacts (which are internalised). This is a negative outcome for those wishing to abate climate change.

At the other end of the scale, collaboration and positive forms of competition can see vast advances in industries. Take China’s nascent advancement in electric vehicles (EVs) as an example. By building a new industry, the rest of the world has been challenged to innovate too.

If we take the Space Race as precedent for when a challenge is taken seriously, then the investment implications can be substantial. At its peak during the Apollo missions, NASA’s budget was approximately three times what it is now, in real terms. The technological spinoffs were substantial. Water purification is a prime example – the water needs of crew on a spacecraft demanded extensive recycling of waste water back to drinkable water. The race also needed a way to generate power without carrying further fuel into orbit. This led to advances in solar cells, which allowed for power generation from an abundant source. The invention of freeze dried foodstuffs and advances in tyres – to name but a few – were also prompted by the sprint to space.

Climate change likely provides an even greater challenge than the Space Race or the Cold War. The reactions could develop into healthy competition and collaboration and see meaningful investment. However, whilst positive steps like the Paris Climate Agreement suggest hostility is indeed giving way to collaboration, the levels of investment in abating climate technology remain too low.

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