A Voice for Earth

Environmental and social justice and my personal experiences in the area.


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Evacuate Earth? Hold your Horses Hawking

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk from the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking that we must become a “multi-planetary species” in order to protect ourselves from the risk of total annihilation upon our one little home. Being interested in space myself, I can understand their reasoning. So let’s examine the logic behind investing our resources into putting humanity firmly beyond the Earth for good.

The solar system and the wider galaxy are not the most secure places for a living world hurtling through the void. Within our own planetary system, the big risk factors are asteroids and comets, the former being a giant chunk of rock and/or iron, and the latter being mostly water ice. Certainly, many have impacted the Earth, leading most famously to the extinction of the dinosaurs. An asteroid capable of causing an extinction level event would most likely be detected long before impact, and a coordinated international effort could launch a mission to deflect it. Comets, however, are often not visible until they pass the orbit of Jupiter and given the velocity at which they travel, that would give us probably less than six months warning. There’s currently no method conceived of for deflecting a comet.

So that’s suitably terrifying, but the galaxy has far more nasties to offer up. A close pass by another star could disrupt the Oort Cloud, sending countless comets into the inner solar system to relentlessly bombard the Earth. A nearby star could go supernova, bathing our fragile biosphere in ionizing radiation. A rogue neutron star or black hole could cut right through the heart of our system, slowly strangling the life out of our world with their immense gravity before finally tearing it asunder.

Hell, the Earth itself could kill us.

During the Permian Mass Extinction, also known as the Great Dying, over 90% percent of all life was lost. It was initiated by massive volcanic activity in the Siberian Traps that was of such a scale that it released enough greenhouse gases to raise the Earth’s temperature by five degrees Celsius. After a series of volcanic winters and periods of rapid warming, the dust finally settled allowing the released GHGs to properly cook the Earth. This warmth in turn destabilized methane hydrates at the bottom of the ocean, which is a greenhouse gas up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This raised temperatures a further five degrees. The ocean ecology collapsed, and Earth’s waters became one giant acidified dead zone. The land became inhospitable, searingly hot and bone dry. Even oxygen levels dropped, suffocating some of the fauna.

The ironic thing is that there’s an experiment being carried out right now to replicate the conditions of the end Permian extinction. It is entitled “Global Industrial-Scale Fossil Fuel Combustion to Generate Electricity and Fuel Transport for Human Civilization”. You should look it up some time!

One would think after all that that we’re screwed. One or more of these events is bound to transpire at some point, but that’s the thing, some point could mean tomorrow or ten million years from now. Granted, we can already be pretty damn certain that we’re killing ourselves, but that is a choice, one we are moving painfully slowly away from, but I have hope that self-preservation will slam the accelerator one of these days.

However, putting the pedal to the metal on preserving our living planet and all the life it supports will require massive investment and focus globally. Climate change and general degradation of the Earth’s systems have already progressed far further than they ever should have been allowed for the sake of economic growth and greed. We need a massive overhaul of not just how we produce energy but of our economy and societal values. We need to put the living systems that support our civilization before the profit motive.

What we cannot, for the moment, factor into this equation is an elitist escape plan. We cannot invest in building a lunar base, or founding a Martian metropolis of a million souls, or trying to develop viable ways to travel to the outer reaches of our solar system and to the stars beyond. Not right now at any rate. I imagine Stephen Hawking would wholly disagree. He believes we are at our most vulnerable right now as a species because we possess the means to destroy ourselves and the Earth, but we lack the means to escape it.

But what do we think we’re escaping to? The Moon? Mars? The gas giants? We’re certainly not getting any further with current technology, so forget about some “potentially Earth-like planet” that the Kepler telescope has spied in the depths of the universe. There ain’t no warp drive or wormhole to get you there just yet.

The fact is that if Earth faced an imminent and dire external threat and was surely doomed then very few of us would be escaping. It would probably be the privileged who could afford it like the escape tunnels of the kings of old, and they wouldn’t be taking refuge in some celestial idyll. They would be in cold, sterile, self-contained bases, shielding them from the inhospitable environment they are condemned to see out the rest of their miserable lives in, as they attempt to perpetuate some semblance of the human species.

Even if we could get to the nearest potentially habitable planet, Proxima Centauri B, what then? What if it has its own diverse ecology, probably something incompatible with our own? Are we honestly going to carry with us the thinking that drove us from our home and bend another living world to our will for the sake of our own survival? What right have we to do that? Are we to become the antagonists of such alien invasion movies as Independence Day and War of the Worlds, harvesting the resources of another world because we have so thoroughly ransacked our own?

Really, for people who dream of evacuating Earth to save us from ourselves and the grave threats of the universe, it is more to make the vision of spacefaring humanity become a reality rather than any practical reason. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the allure. I grew up watching Star Trek and Stargate and any sci-fi I could get my hands on, and the idea of zooming off into the void, seeing what’s out there, finding new life, all that is exquisitely compelling.

Yet, I think it’s unlikely that we will reach those heights of technological achievement in time to make any difference to our survival, not on the business-as-usual path we are currently sprinting down. It’s likely that in this century and the next that we’re going to experience some society-stopping shocks. Water scarcity, food insecurity, conflict, natural disasters, all beyond our capability to adequately respond, and then complete breakdown as civilization slips away into the fires of a second Great Dying. Even if we survive the Armageddon we instigate, all else will be lost.

No one who survives such a calamity will remember Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking or the dream of humanity amongst the stars. All they’ll know is a grim reality of anything beyond bare survival being a luxury.

But as I said before, we have a choice in that.

We can be the fools who ran their only home into the ground with the slight possibility that some will seek shelter on the nearest dead rock, or we can be the visionaries who see the value of Earth and take whatever steps are necessary to preserve it for future generations, so that they may seek out greater knowledge and higher things.

My wife told me a story once of a couple who’d been together over fifty years. They were asked how they did it for so long, did they not ever fight? They said that of course they do but in their day, when something was broken you fixed it, you didn’t just replace it. We are breaking our world, our only home in all the universe, and that fact isn’t going to change in time to save us, no matter how much we dream.

Yes, sure, a rock could fall out of the sky and smite us, or a black hole could swallow us whole, but those events are beyond our control. What we can control are our own actions on this Earth. So let’s work on the issues here and make our planet the haven of humanity and all Earthlings that it should be rather than chucking it on the trash pile in the vain hope that another Earth will come our way.

 

Image Source: Random Ramblings of Celeena Cree from National Geographic documentary “Evacuate Earth”

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions.

 

 


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Dumbass Trump Blustering as Earth Burns

When Trump was elected last year, it seemed surreal, like a ridiculous practical joke played by the American electorate and the electoral college on the rest of the world. As the disbelief dispersed afterwards, I think myself and many others wondered how could this be and what could this mean. Seven months on and despite his behavior on the campaign trail, it’s still hard to believe so much madness transpired in that amount of time. It’s like he’s had two terms already (by God, I wish that were the case).

I’ve been so bombarded with the constant awfulness coming out of his administration, and the now Republican dominated House and Senate, that it’s an effort not to grow numb to it all. Everything environmentally and socially responsible seems to be going out the window. Trump’s presidency is like shit-show the musical comes to crazy-town and now he’s taken his tour of insanity international with comically disastrous consequences. If only he weren’t the president of the United States, the greatest military power on Earth, the second greatest carbon polluter, and greatest cumulative carbon polluter, well, then I’d be able to laugh.

I could account for my lack of blogging with things happening in my own personal life but really, it’s been this nutty parade of unmitigated crap, falsehoods, and travesties that has put me off. It’s enough to read about it, let alone write about it, and so here’s to the journalists that keep on reporting on the the corruption and challenging the nonsensical. Still, I can’t let what happened this weekend pass without comment.

Trump exited the Paris Climate Agreement just 18 months after the vast majority of countries in the world negotiated it. He has joined a rather small club of nations who have not ratified it. Syria did not do so for obvious reasons, the country is war-torn and unable to make any such commitments. Nicaragua did not sign because they regard the treaty as not being strong enough.

That I have to give them.

The Paris Climate Agreement would have been a step in the right direction in the 80s or 90s and while it still technically is, it’s woefully insufficient in the face of the scale of the problem. At this stage, we need rapid decarbonisation and equally speedy deployment of renewable energy. Our transport and agricultural practices would also have to radically change, and we would need to also consider investing far more in carbon capture technology to make it viable. I’ve often heard that we need to react globally on the scale the US did in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor and joining WWII. Some people don’t care for the analogy, but what are we if not at war? The only difference is our enemies are not other nations but time, the forces of nature, and ourselves.

Paris only calls for nations to make modest reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, targets which they can set for themselves, and those self-determined goals are not legally binding. Therefore, Nicaragua’s leaders are right. The treaty is weak, entirely dependent on the goodwill of its participants, but at least it had the support of almost all nations on Earth including the largest carbon emitters, or at least it did until Trump stuck to his inane campaign promise (and in my opinion, stuck it to Europe who failed to adequately fawn all over him on his clusterfuck overseas trip).

I could go on for several essays on how Paris is only the very beginning of what we need to tackle climate change, and how we need to make the bulk of the big changes necessary in the next two decades.  However, this is me venting and raging against the orange buffoon who now sits in the Oval Office, so I’m going to stay on topic.

Trump is moronic. He completely lacks understanding of what the climate accord is or does. He doesn’t even properly realize that he can’t just immediately pull the US out of it. At the earliest, nations can pull out with a year’s notice after it goes into effect, meaning that the earliest he could do this legitimately would be the day after the next presidential election.

Of course, he can do what he has been doing already, and this is the reason that Paris is so shamefully weak, and that is to keep the voluntary commitments but not implement them and even backtrack to whatever extent he wants on environmental and energy policy. Realistically speaking, him reneging on the Paris Agreement was more of a symbolic middle finger to the world, letting everyone know that he really means it when he says America first.

It is ironic that his primary motivation, at least officially, for pulling out was to bolster the US economy and protect jobs. He seems to be, either willfully or not, oblivious to the fact that the clean energy sector is producing more jobs than fossil fuels, especially coal which is in decline. Solar alone in 2016 created 17 times more jobs in the US than the rate of the overall economy. Wind power also employs far more people than coal, and renewables are on the up and up.

He also campaigned on ending what he perceives to be the US’s losing streak to China. Yet China has plowed funding into renewables and is seeing job growth in the sector, and the investment is forecast to create 13 million jobs by 2020. His policies and leaving the Paris Agreement will ultimately only make the US less competitive in a rapidly growing sector while giving China, India, and other nations an edge. His policies will, at best, stagnate the fossil fuel industry rather than accelerate its decline, which is what Obama’s policies would have done. Yet, given how dire our situation has become, we cannot afford even a stagnant fossil fuel industry. Emissions have to start coming down rapidly from here on out.

This is what drives me insane. In his arrogance, his bluster, and his stupidity, Donald Trump has thrown the US paddle overboard, folded his arms, and now sits there sullenly, while the rest of us desperately try to get our boat towards a horizon we need to reach, for behind us is the precipice of a waterfall, and we will not all survive the descent, if any of us.

The only thing that gives me solace is that as powerful as his office is, he cannot flip a switch and undo all the progress that has already been made, nor can he put the brakes on the inevitable changes in the energy sector. Renewables are still the future, as is climate action, if not in certain segments of American society and industry then it is so globally. It’s heartening that Trump faces massive backlash to his decision from around the world, that he faces dissension from within his own borders.

The US Climate Alliance, which started with three states, California, Washington, and New York, now includes Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island with more possibly to follow. They plan to continue to adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement, and they represent a massive chunk of US GDP and carbon emissions, meaning their continued efforts will have a significant impact on the US economy with them favoring the domestic clean energy and electric transport industries over fossil fuel energy and transport.

Though this may be enough for some to have cause for optimism, it’s still wholly inadequate. At the moment, we are allowing the free market and economics to be the sole drivers of investment in renewables and other technologies we need to face this crisis. Governments need to have a more hands-on approach and stop throwing out soft legislation and meager subsidies and instead focus policy on getting these technologies mainstream and dominant over fossil fuels as soon as is feasible. Doing less at this point is just irresponsible if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change and have a livable planet for future generations.

It is unfortunate that the current US president is a bull in a china shop who has surrounded himself with snakes in the grass. However, unlike Kyoto or other international agreements, we cannot let this administration dictate policy worldwide, nor can we allow its stubborn non-involvement to be an excuse to scale back action elsewhere.

Though Paris still leaves a lot to be desired, it’s all we’ve got so far, and the vast majority of the world seems to be sticking with it. What needs to happen now is that we continue to rapidly build on the successes of the agreement, to exceed our targets and exceed the next ones, and hope this eventually leads to stronger, more binding treaties that will ensure decarbonisation of the global economy happens, regardless of the current actions of the US federal government.

What we can also hope for, and what US citizens can work towards, is a political shift in 2018 and 2020 to boot Trump and representatives who are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, so that further action is not impeded and maybe it’ll be possible to get binding international climate treaties past the houses of Congress. If not, then we can still count on the autonomy of individual states. If enough of them are taking action, it’s going to be hard for those that are supporting fossil fuels and suppressing renewables to remain competitive nationally or globally.

In conclusion, trump sucks, but his suckiness is not a cause for falling into despair. He is one foolish man whose own arrogance and selfishness will be his undoing anyway. It can’t be long until at least some of his base realize he’s screwing them over, too. We can all live in hope that he’ll be only a one-term wonder. So as he bumbles on, we need to take our eyes away from Washington in hope of leadership and start being the leaders ourselves. Our governments, our mayors, our local councils, you and I need to demand change and make changes that will put further pressure on corporations and recalcitrant politicians to get in line on climate action.

So the world is still nearing the flames, but Donald Trump’s little hands can’t push us all the way in. Only we can do that by collective inaction or half-measures. Let’s hope we have the courage to pull back from the brink.

 

Image Source: The Daily Banter

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions.