Nova Prospekt

When I woke up this morning, something about space was jabbering through my brain. Maybe because of the second trip of space tourist Charles Simonyi, maybe because I watched Deep Impact last night (such a great movie - you lie, Rotten Tomatoes!), maybe because I found the wikipedia page on the Best Named Book Ever (Even If I Don't Agree With Its Conclusions), I dunno.

So by way of finding an excuse to talk about space (it's really big, you see - really really big), I want to wonder a little about our future.

Climate change is a looming threat which is going to take a lot more than the effort we - as a country and a world - have put out so far to beat. But can we beat it?

Some people (the Best Named Book Ever by James Lovelock among them) think that we just can't. Others believe that it's possible if we get working right now - but that work is, essentially, politically impossible in the current world. Other people are a little more optimistic - like me, sort of - while other people like Senator James Inhofe are so incredibly optimistic about climate change that they believe that even if there is warming, "God is still up there."

So, in short, there's a long list of possibilities.

But there are some general notes that are pretty certain. There is warming, and this warming is going to cause an increase in weather extremes. And while it's coming incredibly quickly by Earth's standards, we - as humans - do have time to prepare. In other words, this is not the Day After Tomorrow (and, point of fact, the scientists in that movie were as surprised as anyone climate-literate in the audience).

And most importantly, the further extremes resulting from climate change will not hit everywhere equally.

Most people think that even if we did everything right today, there'd still be fairly significant (around 2 degrees celsius - enough to be noticed, without a doubt) warming - we've stressed the climate enough that it's already reacting, and will keep changing just off of what we've already put into the atmosphere and oceans. So there's that.

So no matter what we do, something's going to happen - so let's imagine. In particular, I want to focus on hurricanes, droughts, and changed weather that will impact crops.

Let's imagine hurricanes the strength of Katrina (or stronger) hitting every year in a variety of places. We would either have to invest huge amounts of money in stronger defenses against rising water and wind (as well as inevitable rebuilding) or retreat from the places hit hardest by hurricanes - in the United States, that's the South all the way to Texas. That alone would cripple our national oil industry, even if work could still continue part of the year, and unless organized extremely well - with help from OPEC and some other nations - would result in wide-spread gasoline shortages. Industry related to the Gulf of Mexico - fishing, tourism, sugar cane - would most likely also be struck hard, just because maintaining infrastructure along the coast would be much more expensive.

Droughts, meanwhile, would hit dry places, especially as population increases lead to greater water usage. The question is the same - do we try to defend ourselves or retreat from the affected area? One possible means of defending ourselves is to build desalinization plants - most likely powered by nuclear reactors (which is proven technology - Japan has built eight). Unfortunately, the economics of new nuclear reactors are such that we would most likely be exhausting natural water sources before turning to them - unless some serious legislation was passed. Plus, no matter how fast we work, there's lag time in setting up the kinds of plants that would be necessary to keep agriculture in California and the Southwest going at the same level - in short, there's going to be some disruption to crops.

To a less-Biblically-epic degree, storms resulting from a faster water cycle (warmer air/water means more evaporation which means more water vapor in storm systems) would also hit agricultural land, but much more randomly. Defending against this would be harder - but so would retreat. On the whole, while we might be able to gen-engineer sturdier crops, set up mass greenhouses to defend against it, or just increase yields to the point of compensation, there would still be disruption here, as well.

I guess the main point I'm trying to make is just that - there's going to be disruption. A lot of the rhetoric against acting on climate change cites a need to preserve the economy - or just our society. A lot of it relies on creating doubt about the science, but that's just the means; the end is to preserve the status quo.

But that's not possible. The United States might be hit especially hard by climate change, due to our size and multiple coasts and irrigated deserts, but no country is going to soldier on exactly as it's doing now - especially given globalization. The economic crisis has shown that the financial structures of the world are deeply intertwined - but so are commodity and food markets. Disruption in some parts of the world - especially temperate bread-basket regions - will resonate through-out the globe.

There will be disruption. We've already killed the status quo - it just hasn't finished dying off yet.

So anyway, on that cheery thought, why don't we just escape to space and colonize another planet?

First, we have yet to find any that might end up being suitable - all the extra-solar planets we've found are gas giants that orbit very close to their suns (there might be a few exceptions to this by now, though - they're finding new ones all the time).

Something in our solar system, maybe? Well, there are some moons of Jupiter and Saturn that might work - or we could try to terraform Venus or Mars - but we're far below the technology that that would require. We couldn't even keep people in Biosphere 2 alive without injecting additional oxygen - there were too many variables. A simpler habitat might suffice, but the engineering and construction advances needed for any kind of colonization effort is just mindboggling (and would probably have to start with a space elevator). Space-based colonies suffer from the same problems - as well as the fact that we have no idea what happens to people when they live their lives in weightless space. While weightlessness could be overcome (such as with super-rad space colony designs), that's a whole new engineering/construction feat.

To me, it seems better to put money and energy into the problem now rather than later - especially since mitigating climate change has so many positive benefits, like reforestation and re-establishment of wet lands, a move towards localized, renewable power, pollution and heat-island reduction, and long-run-cheaper cars.

Or we could just pray, I guess.

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