Climate Space

The Big Why

Four times out of five, the people I talk to are excited about space settlement (if they aren’t bored out of the conversation before that stage). But one in five asks the Really Sticky Question. Why are we even bothering going to space?

There’s a very broad question about space travel, and it’s a big why. In my experience almost everyone sees the fundamental value of exploration, as a form of fundamental science. The usual rebuttal is that space is simply less important than the other things humanity needs to address right now. Often that other thing is poverty or inequality, but almost all of the time it’s climate change.

Why are we bothering settling space when we have such a pressing issue to solve with climate change?

I’m somewhat on the fence when it comes to climate pessimism/optimism. I firmly believe that we are losing the battle to cut emissions and keep temperature rise to 1.5C. I don’t think we’re on track for a strong apocalypse scenario, instead that we’ll muddle through with a combination of geoengineering and expensive mitigation measures. Regardless, it’s absolutely certain we should be throwing every possible effort at decarbonising our energy and transport infrastructures.

So why am I simultaneously so bullish on space exploration? Because those two efforts – the drive to decarbonise, and the great push upwards – aren’t drawing from the same pool of effort. It isn’t either/or. In fact, both efforts synergise very well and may well benefit from being pushed in parallel.

Looking at climate first, it’s very simply no longer a question of technology. With the almost singular exceptions of solar radiation management and nuclear fusion, the overwhelming majority of fundamental technologies required for climate change mitigation already exist and are already very mature. Solar panels, heat pumps, electric motors, high power density batteries, wind turbines – these are all things we understand very well. There are incremental improvements to be made, sure (removing the requirements for cobalt and neodymium in the above stand as particular targets) but there isn’t a whole lot of fundamental blue-sky discovery to be done. I’m pretty warm on the argument that it’s actually somewhat counterproductive to focus too much effort on blue-sky climate technology research because it’s a distraction from the immediate rollout of existing technology. The price of forever chasing cold fusion could be the never rollout of safe and cost-effective Generation IV fission reactors.

Because it’s really not a technology question about climate any more. It’s a politics and economics question. One G7 country with a rigorous, progressive carbon tax is far more significant than a 3% increase in solar panels efficiency because it just gets boots on the ground deploying solar panels right now. It’s not like those panels will be cutting edge anyway because it’s cheaper to make slightly older, slightly simpler panels and just make 3% more of them. 

40 years ago we didn’t really know if it was possible to mitigate climate change because the fundamental technologies were still in infancy. 20 years ago we didn’t know if they could be made economical on a large scale, with a rush of predictions of “fundamental lower bounds” on the cost of batteries or solar panels.

We’ve spent two decades smashing through those fundamental lower bounds, in some cases by orders of magnitude. In the same time, government subsidies for oil exploration have remained stuck and an awful lot of nations have reduced support for green industries. The technology isn’t moving in the wrong direction, the policy is.

The technology of climate mitigation needs three things at this stage: developments in manufacture to reduce cost and increase scale, reduced reliance on critical resources like cobalt and neodymium, and marginal cost-effective improvements in performance. All of those are incremental evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary) research.

On the complete other hand, space exploration and settlement is driven almost entirely by revolutionary (requiring fundamental new developments) innovation and relatively small amounts of highly targeted investment. The space industry is absolutely dwarfed by the petrochemical industry alone (employing around a million vs six million workers globally). And the budgets are on whole different levels. The previous bells-and-whistles Mars exploration architecture, as produced by the SEI study in the late 90s, was estimated to cost $100bn over a decade-long project comparable to Apollo. The US military spends that in about two months, the seven supermajor oil firms make that much revenue in one. As long as you’re not operating under the assumption that climate change mitigation will be a majority government led operation – and if you are, say hello to everyone else in the deep well of depression – it’s absolutely ludicrous to claim that space exploration is taking any substantial money away from climate efforts.

If anything, the two great campaigns synergise on both a technological and economic level. There’s a tremendous overlap between the systems required for surviving and thriving in deep space, and for living in a sustainable fashion on earth. On a very basic level, there are no fossil fuels in space. We are forced to devise systems of energy generation and chemical engineering that are 100% independent of dinosaur juice. On earth, things like algae crude oil or bioplastics are a luxury that receive a trickle of funding for exploratory development. On Mars they are the difference between a functional chemical industry and a nonexistent one. There’s no reason that we couldn’t just develop the same systems for direct use on earth. But space focuses the mind and the budgets towards the task immediately at hand and proves their “commercial” viability. From that humble starting point, innovators on Earth can begin to turn the wheels of incremental technology improvement. 

This is a story as old as the space program itself: space demands a solution, a solution is devised, the solution falls back into the atmosphere and changes the world. The demands of frontier pushing brought us the digital computer and effective solar panels. Who can say what bountiful harvest we will reap for Earth from Mars.

As for the argument for economic synergy – at a fundamental level, investing in the development of space means investing in high value industries. A few thousand high-grade solar panels ordered from a medium-sized producer means more investment in solar panel manufacturing in that area, and a pushing of the economy towards producing in-demand renewable technology with high-value high-skill jobs. That’s precisely what every government is trying to achieve, whether through Build Back Better or a Green New Deal. Space provides the motive force behind a high tech green industrialisation movement that benefits far, far more than the astronauts actually receiving those panels in deep space. Those thousands of space grade panels beget millions of terrestrial panels and thousands of jobs working towards a green future.

I’ll say one final thing about the climate-space question. I’m a big believer in the power of a zeitgeist to affect society, for better or worse. Towards the latter half of last century, a great deal of that zeitgeist could be characterised by excess, might and competition. The US built tremendous rockets, put man on the moon to beat the Soviets and had the best consumer technology in the world. Old was out, new was in and we consumed like never before. Only now are we reaping the seeds of that consumerism in our water, air and soil. Deep space settlement doesn’t demand excess, it demands balance. A Mars settlement will be a banner across the stars about the importance of reducing and recycling your waste, and minimising consumption of raw materials. Zeitgeists aren’t easy things to steer but my inner romantic hopes that another finger on that side of the scales might just make a difference.

Enough about climate. There is a second flavour of argument against space settlement in particular, as opposed to simple exploration. It applies to Mars in particular, but weaker forms can be used against settlement elsewhere in the solar system. It’s some variation on the theme that humans haven’t proven themselves very good conservators of wilderness here on Earth, and that we don’t really have a right to be spreading out ruining other untouched celestial bodies. And the grimmest thought of all, if there is something latent microbial life lingering on Mars, we could totally inadvertently wipe it out. Whether through our direct actions of mining, altering the balance of the atmosphere, contamination with terrestrial microbes or simple habitat destruction, we could unwillingly commit a perfect ecocide. The destruction of not just nature but the entire biosphere of a planet.

We don’t deserve the planets, they are beautiful precisely because they are pristine. How can you advocate for the wholesale trampling of these untouched wildernesses?

Firstly a word on aesthetics. I’m a fairly firm subscriber to the subjectivist school of thought that suggests aesthetic beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder – the act of observing is what defines beauty. The south pole wasn’t beautiful before Amundsen saw it. The far side of the moon wasn’t beautiful until Luna 3 photographed it. The depths of Martian lava tubes won’t be beautiful until humans or their machines crawl inside and see the shafts of light slide over the pristine surfaces within. They weren’t beautiful, they simply were. Inert matter has no subjective descriptions until someone experiences them. If I was a philosopher, I’d end the discussion by saying that exploration creates beauty and thus there is a purely aesthetic imperative to explore.

But if you’re like me that argument isn’t fully satisfying. It provides a solid basis for “we should send as many people to as many places as possible” but doesn’t address a lot of others. We have sent an awful lot of people to the high American deserts, or the depths of Amazonia. By every account the first few found it transcendentally beautiful. Then comes tourism to capture that beauty and bottle it up, and extractive industries to take the metals that underlie the landscape. Piecewise the paradise is turned into a wasteland of homes and factories. You could argue forever about the aesthetic merits of industrialisation and the impact of humans on the environment but it’s hard to dispute that something ineffable has been lost.

Honestly? I have no counterpoint for this. Settling the Moon, turning asteroids into stripmines, tapping the rings of Saturn for ice, will all be sapping some of the ineffable wilderness beauty from these places. I too will mourn their destruction. I can’t see a convincing point against this, short of some nonsense about the march of progress and not holding up the flow of history for the sake of some rocks. 

The consolation I draw is this. As long as people care about the landscapes on which we walk, we will not destroy haphazard. Even on Mars there will be debates about the expansion of pipelines across crater lakes and people lying in front of the bulldozers to stop the construction of a new mining pit. The decision to take a first step along the path of settlement – and the inevitable reality of resource extraction – does not represent a carte blanche surrender of all things beautiful. We have not been good conservators of Earth. Let us not import our worst habits to the stars but instead tread with caution and take only what we need. Even on the timescale of centuries we will not be able to make a scratch on the planets unless we make a real and concerted effort to do so. 

Recently a demo for a charming little game called Terra Nil was released. The player must take a scorched, barren landscape and carefully place different structures to restore biodiversity and nature. Of course, this has been carefully crafted to reward the rewilding with a stark contrast between the beauty of the nature and the bleakness of the wasteland. Nobody can comment on what the aesthetic feeling of future settlers will be – whether they want to preserve the cold dust of the solar system as they found it, or paint the planets with flowers. Nor can we make that decision for them. The best we can do now is impress onto the record the weight of our feelings towards each side of the decision and ensure that any choice is not made lightly.

Lastly is the question of life. It may be more likely than not that life did exist on Mars in the deep geologic past and possible – however slim the chance – that some remnants of that life still exist beneath the surface. The discovery of any life, dead or alive, would be an absolutely phenomenally important discovery. From the view of societal impact it would be at least the biggest since evolution, possibly since geocentrism in the 1400s. Confirmation of life beyond Earth reshapes our entire view of the cosmos. To destroy that life inadvertently would be beyond catastrophic.

Confirmation of life would be earth-shattering. The converse, not so much. Proving that no life exists on Mars would require tearing the planet down to molecules and examining every single one, perhaps to a depth of 50km of crustal rock. Surveying a planet in an attempt to categorically rule out the existence of life would be the work of millennia (unless we can produce magical Star Trek life sign scanners). It is a totally unreasonable expectation that we should somehow be sure of the absence of indigenous life before we begin our settlement. No matter how hard we look or how deep we dig with our autoclaved and sterilised drills, there will always be the next crater or next sedimentary bed.

How much proof is enough then? How many core samples must we take before we’re satisfied? That’s a matter for debate with people with more astrobiological understanding, and more stake in the game than myself. All I will say is let’s not let caution for the sake of caution overrule good sense. As we expand onto the red planet our scientific capabilities will rise alongside our industrial ones and thus so should the expected level of proof that operations will not impact life. Some day it will just mean a standard environmental impact study with a section for “proof of absence of indigenous extraterrestrial life”. No big deal. Just another day for a multiplanetary civilisation that’s got it’s shit in order.

Should we go to space? Absolutely. It’s one of the two grand projects of this century. Should we go to space at the expense of all else? Of course not. We are going to be laying the foundation for a human civilisation that will span billions of kilometres, if not light-years. Let’s do it right. Take care of home, keep looking skyward, dream of life on Mars and then put it there. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *