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Would the US help us if we were invaded by aliens…or a virus?

By Ke Nan | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2021-11-05 11:19

The dome of the US Capitol Building is seen as the sun sets on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 26, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

In a recent essay published in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, a columnist famous for his book The World is Flat, argued China is leveraging the issue of climate change for its own good, including on the Taiwan question.

But the key point Friedman is trying to push, as shown in the title “Would Russia or China Help Us if We Were Invaded by Space Aliens?” is contradictory. Friedman cited an essay by researcher Robert Litwak who said former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was once approached by former US president Ronald Reagan at a summit meeting and asked: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev’s answer was “No doubt about it”.

I understand climate change is a potential global catastrophe and needs a universal effort to triumph. However, the alien analogy has several defects.

First of all, although Ronald Reagan is a big sci-fi fan — remember “Star Wars”? — his question shows no understanding of science. Imagine an alien civilization, capable of traveling across the vastness of space. This would mean for them, humanity is in the Stone Age or worse. So say they actually came to planet Earth to invade only the United States. Why? This reflects an attitude of American self-centeredness. Even in Roland Emmerich’s jingoistic sci-fi movie Independence Day, aliens attack the whole Earth, not the US alone.

The late American astronomer Carl Sagan cited a slightly different version of the Gorbachev-Reagan talk in his book Billions and Billions. In that version, Reagan did refer to an alien invasion of the US, but it was an invasion of the whole planet that united the Soviet Union and US. I think that’s a better way to put it.

But climate change is different from an alien invasion. In such a scenario, the US would be a victim. However, for climate change, we cannot argue US that. Climate-altering greenhouse gases have been accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. These “old” greenhouse gases, were largely produced by Western countries that industrialized early. They don’t magically disappear.

Though Friedman and most Western media outlets emphasize China has the most greenhouse gas emissions, they don’t tell you China’s annual emissions only began to exceed those of the US about a decade ago. From a historical perspective, the US released 25 percent of total greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution, while the figure for China is 13 percent. In 2019, the carbon dioxide emissions per-capita in the US was 16.1 metric tons, while China’s figure is 7.1, lower than Japan’s 8.7 — a country regarded as highly energy efficient.

With great historical greenhouse emissions comes great responsibility. That is especially true for the US. In this sense, what we are facing is not a threat from outer space, but a threat largely created by the West.

If you looked more closely at Friedman’s argument, you would find it quite bizarre. Don’t forget, Friedman’s starting point is an alien invasion. If an alien is capable of interstellar travel, it must be so powerful the only possible way to fight it is by uniting all of humanity. That’s the whole point of the argument. However, Friedman proposed an “Earth race” against greenhouse emissions. He said US President Joe Biden should declare “America’s intention to win the Earth race, to make America the first country to invent and deploy the most clean-power technologies and drive them down the cost curve so that everyone on the planet can afford them.’’

Alas, if the current climate change is so pressing — and it is — shouldn’t we gather all the talented brainpower on Earth to tackle it, asking scientists all over the world to work together on clean energy sources? Declaring a “race” against climate change means going it alone. Would Friedman suggest the US declare such a proposal over a real alien invasion because the US is so star-spangled awesome, or did he watch too much Squid Game ?

Friedman said launching such a race is “a way for America to reclaim some moral leadership on the world stage”. Reclaim moral leadership? Shouldn’t this be about saving humanity? Since when has such a mission been about a power struggle? And for a country that quit the Paris agreement under the Trump administration, a reclaimed “moral leadership” is so flimsy we don’t even know if the tide will be turned again three years later, let alone the promise – with no action to back it -- of cutting half of US emissions by 2030.

Talking about moral leadership, I would like to modify the title of Friedman’s essay and ask, would the US help us if we were invaded by a virus? COVID-19 emerged from nature, not by aliens from outer space. However, if we think of the virus as an alien invasion it would be devastating: Five million people have died of the disease, including more than 700,000 Americans.

And what did the US do? It stockpiled a disproportionately large amount of COVID-19 vaccines than it needed and declined to share them with poor countries before most American people got vaccinated. Many of those doses expired, excess vaccines that could have been used to contain the pandemic, protect medical staff and prevent deadly mutations, which already render vaccines less effective. Stockpiling vaccine won’t help the US or the rest of the world.

That’s not the only sign of the US’s refusal to help. The US’s stigmatization of COVID-19 provoked hate against Asian people, and its politicization of origin-tracing is an obstacle to preventing future infectious diseases. The US pushed conspiracy theories against China, falsely arguing the virus leaked from a lab, and outlets like the New York Times had no problem repeating them.

So, if we are invaded by aliens — or a virus —will the US help, Mr. Friedman? I think we can all see the answer for ourselves.

The author is a science writer.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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