By Juan Cole
5 November 2013
(Informed Comment) – The issue of habitable planets, earth’s own disastrous climate change, and Virginia politics don’t intersect every day. But today they do, and that does not reflect well on the human species or its prospects. Bear with me.
NASA’s now-idle Kepler telescope’s earlier search for habitable planets in the universe from time to time generates breathless reporting on how there are lots of (most recently, “ten billion”) earth-like worlds.
NASA reports that one in five stars have earth-sized planets orbiting in a ‘sweet spot’ so that water and life would be possible.
The problem with getting excited about all this is that space is incredibly big, and human beings have no, zero, nada prospect of ever going to any of those other earth-like worlds (most of which would not in fact support human life because of the need for the right mix of gases in the atmosphere, bacterially-churned soil to grow food in, etc., etc.) Space travel to other solar systems is a wonderful literary device, but given Einsteinian constraints on exceeding the speed of light (not to mention the severe challenges of going even a fraction as fast), human beings are stuck in our own little corner of the Milky Way.
India’s unmanned Mars mission, which just successfully blasted off, has provoked scientists to muse about the possibility of “terra-forming” that planet or engineering it to be habitable for human beings.
This enthusiasm for earth-like worlds, or making other worlds earth-like, makes me tear my hair out, given that we are assiduously destroying the only actual habitable planet we are likely to have any time in the foreseeable future.
The UN has just announced that the chances of us limiting global warming to only 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F.) are almost zero and that we will exceed 2020 carbon emissions targets by 12 billion metric tons. That’s tragic, because 12 billion metric tons could certainly be cut out of our emissions in the next 6 years if we started a crash program to accomplish it. Just increasing our energy use efficiency (25% of American buildings have no insulation) and closing coal plants in favor of green energy sources would probably accomplish it. It would cost some money, but much of that would stimulate economic growth via the multiplier effect, which would be good for a world in the doldrums. The US reduced its emissions from 6 billion metric tons a year to 5 ( more because of wind power installations than because of natural gas) in the past couple of years. A global program to get 12 times that effect, with China, India, Russia and others joining in, is not impossible. It is just highly unlikely.
In my state, Michigan, we had a ten percent green energy goal for 2015, and even our Republican governor is considering increasing that to 15% in 2020 and 30% in 2030. But that isn’t the correct timeline for Michigan or the world. We would need to go twice as fast, 30% by 2020 and 60% by 2030, to avoid catastrophe. I’m putting solar panels on my house, but get virtually no help or encouragement from my state (compare to Washington state, where I’d get a 75% offset). The slower timeline is better for Big Oil and Big Coal, because their commodities keep their value longer, a delay worth trillions of dollars to them. But in order to keep them rich a little while longer, we are scorching and drowning, i.e. torturing to death, our unborn grandchildren.