In 1957, a United States shocked by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite bounced into action to compete on the world stage. More than 50 years later, in May of 2011, the U.S. is facing a new challenge. The Chinese Communist Party has decided to launch a crash program to produce green energy, a field where it already has a commanding lead over the U.S. The difference between 1957 and 2011 is that American politics in the meantime have been captured by parasitic or corrupt industries such as high finance and big oil and gas. The Green Gap produced by China’s increasing lead in the technologies of the future is not even headlined in America’s corporate mass media, much less galvanizing a nation of gas guzzlers and coal junkies.
The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has caused the Chinese Communist Party to reconsider its plans to vastly expand its own nuclear power industry. The government of President Hu Jintao is thinking instead of vastly expanding the green energy sector, aiming to produce 50 gigawatts from solar energy by 2020, up from a previous goal of 20 gigawatts. If the new goal can be met, it will be an impressive accomplishment in its own right. The six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, among the largest such plants in the world, produced 4.7 gigawatts, so the Chinese solar plants would be the solar equivalent of more than four such complexes.
The real promise, however, is that if the Chinese government really does throw a trillion and a half dollars at solar and other renewables over the next decade and a half, the cost of producing energy in that way is likely to plummet. The Middle Kingdom already produces half of the world’s solar panels. The bad news for the United States is that China could dominate the rapidly growing and crucial world market for green technology in coming decades, leaving literally in the dust a Rust Belt America wedded to dirty coal, oil and water-slurping shale extraction.
China’s production of green technology has been growing 77 percent a year, and solar panels, wind turbines and other green manufactures account for 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product. Only tiny Denmark outdoes China on this score, deriving 3.1 percent of its GDP from renewable energy technology. But of course in absolute terms China’s production in this sector, at $64 billion annually, leads the world. The U.S. derives only 0.3 percent of its GDP from green tech and substantially trails China in absolute terms. Last year Beijing installed three times as much new wind turbine capacity as the United States. It added 18.9 gigawatts of new wind power-generating capacity in 2010, or about half of all the new wind installations in the world.
Chinese officials, unlike many representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, have no doubt that spewing carbon into the atmosphere is causing climate change of a sort that threatens the world’s and their own country’s future prosperity. China’s dirty coal-burning plants are a major source of this pollution, and it is they that the clean energy installations will replace.
The time is coming when the rest of the world will launch lawsuits at the World Trade Organization against the United States and its hydrocarbon corporations for destroying their crops and submerging their shorelines through its deadly carbon emissions. China may face much less global anger because, although it is now the world’s leading source of carbon emissions, it is moving much more quickly and responsibly to address this global challenge than is the U.S., currently the world’s No. 2 carbon dioxide producer.
The Eisenhower administration responded vigorously to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik program. Americans were shocked to discover that they were No. 2 in so important a scientific and technological field. In the 1950s, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans were still paying their taxes, and so the government had the wherewithal to found the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and to bump up research and development in a number of other agencies, as well as promote science education in the K-12 system.
The anxiety did not stop with concern that Americans were not very good at mathematics and science. Rather, Washington suddenly realized that the United States needed a cadre of academics and officials who knew the languages and cultures of the societies over which capitalism and communism were competing. Congress therefore passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), providing funds to universities for the study of world areas such as China, India and Eastern Europe. The language of the act later became Title VI in the Department of Education, which supports nearly 120 National Resource Centers at universities across America, studying everything from Afghanistan to Brazil.
In contrast to the strenuous efforts of 1958 to expand Americans’ horizons, the House of Representatives in 2011 is full of politicians who actively despise science and higher education, hate environmentalism, deny global climate change and are in the back pocket of Big Oil. They have delivered themselves of a budget that increases funding for the Department of War, implies long-term and deeper cuts in taxes for the super-wealthy, and devours the seed corn of America’s K-12 and higher education programs. America has already fallen behind Macao and Latvia in math and science skills and ranks only ninth globally in the percentage of its youths who are college graduates. (It used to be first.) Instead of increasing funding for Title VI and the area studies centers (the descendants of 1958’s NDEA), governmental agents of the proudly monolingual tea party in their wisdom have cut that program by half.
The U.S. won the space race that was kicked off in earnest by Sputnik. Now, this Congress, full of climate change contrarians, hasn’t even gotten up off the couch or laced up its sneakers in reaction to China’s solar challenge. It would be as though the 1958 House not only ignored Sputnik, but also denied that the Earth is round or could be orbited. Since Congress has halved the federal money for Chinese studies centers, American young people won’t have the opportunity to study Mandarin in the same numbers, and won’t even be able to understand the scientific papers of Chinese scientists or get jobs in the mailrooms of the burgeoning Chinese solar corporations. The original Tea Party kicked off the independence of the United States from a hegemonic power. This one seems intent on delivering us into the hands of a new one.
*Juan R.I. Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He has written extensively on modern Islamic movements in Egypt, the Persian Gulf and South Asia and has given numerous media interviews on the war on terrorism and the Iraq War.