Exoplanets: Life, Civilization, Environmental Crises, Political Divisions, and Our Challenges

Exoplanets: Life, Civilization, Environmental Crises, Political Divisions, and Our Challenges

This essay sounds rambling, because we are exploring the possibilities as we write. Other than redoing the title and adding this paragraph, we are not going to edit or change the flow of the ideas herein.

This question combines my current interests in energy policy, climate science, politics, and exoplanets. I have gone to six exoplanet talks in the last few weeks, mostly concerning how new orbital and earth telescopes can detect atmospheric evidence of life in the atmospheric spectra of exoplanets. Our UC Irvine Physics and Astronomy hiring last year of Prof. Aomawa Shields brings us expertise in the exiting new field of the climates of exoplanets. I am going to blend exoplanet ideas with theories that the differences between Democrats and Republicans may be universal, and by universal, I really mean the Universe.

It is highly unlikely that in the billion year histories of planets and life on them, that we would catch any nearby ones in our few hundred year period of greenhouse gas pollution. Our rapid rise in global population and concomitant resurrection and burning of hundreds of millions of years of fossil fuel deposits has essentially only risen in the last century, and mostly in the last 50 years. It is estimated that we can burn all of our fossil fuels in the next 250 years, peaking about 125 years from now. At that point, the atmospheric retention time of CO2 rises from around 100 years to on the order of 4,000 years, since the capture of carbon in phytoplankton will become saturated by a destructively high ocean carbonic acid. Still, the carbon will eventually get recaptured, and any civilization will only survive and expand with renewable or nuclear energy sources. Then, the ice age astronomical cycle would return. But the planet may clear up its current and rising CO2 pollution.

The carbon pollution would still be a small period in the time period of life on any planet. Still, we may cross environmental turning points which cause positive feedbacks to enhanced warming, to Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland icecap melting, or to the global set of ocean currents that bring warm weather to the Northern climes.

Some social scientists showed that Republicans and Democrats are different in that R’s like more set rules, or are conservative, and that D’s are more tolerant of differences and welcoming of new knowledge and innovation. I am going with the historic outlook of Republicans representing the wealthy. In this new administration, we are seeing a maximization of the dominance of the very rich and their financial interests. This is visible in the appointments of representatives of the billionaire fossil fuel industries. It is visible in the newly proposed American Health Care Act, where the top 0.1% and top 1% get large tax cuts. It is the historic image of the Republican Party as representing the wealthy. Trump has taken a back seat as these historic plans of Republicans play their way out.

I am assuming that even alien civilizations will have those who get wealthy exploiting their resources eventually dominating whatever government that they have. It also seems likely that their civilization will exploit fossil fuels before they develop high tech wind turbines, solar cells, and nuclear reactors. Since so little CO2 can increase global temperatures, they will be fighting the same battle as the environment versus fossil fuel interests that we are fighting.

The two forces that shaped our lifeforms’ evolution, of competition for territory and resources, versus the progress brought by cooperation, will also play out on other planets. This is the basis of many science fiction novels of other civilizations. They are a part of history all over our planet. While the US has now succumbed to the party dominated by fossil fuel billionaires, the rest of the world has come together in the Paris agreement to protect the planet from rapid climate change. Since the blue half of America will continue advancing clean energy, the rest of the world will forward CO2 mitigation, but a harder course still lies ahead.

If we fail to do enough on a global scale, there will be massive dislocations, which countries are already preventing, even on a humanitarian basis. There’s starvation caused by droughts, and by wars responding to them, leading to more starvation. This as the same time that our administration is cutting foreign aid. We also canceled birth counseling that could turn overpopulation around.

As long as the consequences of climate change wars do not lead to devastating nuclear wars, civilization will not perish, but just induce a lot of unnecessary suffering. The nuclear winter caused by fires for even a limited nuclear exchange, can kill crops for years. Such civilizations are very unlikely to expend efforts to contact other civilizations.

The US is still the leading country in earth observing satellites and climate science. The current administration may triumph in deeply cutting US climate science, and suffer in the lack of weather and climate predictions, flood and farming adaptation.

With the rapid rate of scientific analyses and discoveries, we really have no idea what development options will occur for our civilization. So far we know we are on the road to more computer control or artificial intelligence. We can also expect genetic modifications to our benefit. We expect diseases to be conquered.

At the same time, global warming has caused pine bark beetles to thrive in forests, where extended freezes no longer occur, creating a vast dead landscape and the severe threat and cost of forest fires and their destruction. The northward advance of mosquitos is also spreading tropical diseases. Agricultural pests are also spreading.

Just like the dangers of chlorofluorocarbons appeared unexpected, and fortunately were realized by climate scientists and atmospheric chemists, and acted upon internationally, there may still be other climate surprises lurking. The chlorofluorocarbon danger was criticized and opposed by chemical companies, similarly to the way climate science is being opposed now.

With future study of the evidence for life on exoplanets, we may find out how unique is the development of life. We will also find out if civilization is an unexpectedly more common occurrence, or so rare that it is not present in nearby exoplanets, as we expect.

About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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