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Getting Climate Change Right: In Light Of The Stars

Getty Images/WIN-Initiative RM

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of the upcoming book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. His scientific studies are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Education. You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

We've been asking the wrong question. That's the problem.

When it comes to facing global warming, when it comes to dealing with climate change, when it comes to making informed choices for our cherished "project of civilization," we've been asking the same uninformed question over and over again.

That's why we're stuck. That's why we can't get climate change right and truly see what's happening to Earth and to us.

But if we could learn to ask the right question, we could do more than just understand our choices.

With the right question, we could finally see how the climate crisis looming over our fate is actually a harbinger. It's the signpost of a transition for humanity as a true planetary species. With the right question, the climate change we've driven can teach us what we humans truly are — and what we might yet become.

The right question, however, can only be seen in light of the stars.

For the last few years, I've been working on a project I call the "Astrobiology of the Anthropocene." My goal has been to set this moment of Earth's planetary evolution into our revolutionary new understanding of planets and life as a whole (that's what astrobiology is all about). Through calculations, simulations and now an upcoming book called Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, the right question has made its appearance.

"Did we change the Earth's climate?" is the wrong question. It's been decades now since our most advanced scientific capacities provided the basic answer to this basic question.

Yes, we changed the planet's climate.

But for reasons saturated with folly, the forces of science denial have created a fog of doubt where none actually exists. So in the popular consciousness, this question — "Did we change the Earth's climate?" — still lives on. It feeds off political polarization and tribal inclinations.

But now, under the light of the stars, we can see this "Did we?" question was always the wrong one to ask. So what's the right question? That turns out to be simple.

"What else did we expect to happen?"

We built a world girdling civilization that consumes a sizable fraction of the total biosphere's power. Yes, that changed the planet's climate. What else did we expect? That's what happens when a species becomes really successful — when it becomes truly planetary.

This new question becomes the obvious one to ask for three reasons.

First, we humans flew our robot emissaries across space to the other worlds of the solar system. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the giant moon Titan: Each of these planets (or moons) has a climate — and each has had climate lessons to teach us. For the last half-century, our space-faring robots have been exploring climate as something more than weather patterns on Earth. Through these machines, we now understand the laws of climate as something general and generic, something that happens on any planet with an atmosphere.

And there are so many planets out there.

Through the light of the stars we've also seen that the cosmos is awash in worlds. Every star you see in the night sky hosts at least one planet and we've already detected atmospheres on some of them. So climate and planets are not just generic, they're literally universal. This is the second reason.

Finally, through painstaking and often dangerous scientific work, we've reconstructed the long history of Earth's biosphere (meaning the totality of its life). From that history we've seen that, under the light of the stars, life and the planet have always been co-evolving. For three and a half billion years, life has been its own form of cosmic power on Earth. It has literally changed the world. The oxygen you're breathing now, for example, exists because of life's planetary powers.

In light of the stars, meaning in light of what we've learned from the universe's many, many worlds (including our own), we can see that planetary climates are a kind of vast machine. They have their own rules based on physics and chemistry. Most importantly, we have seen enough now to understand the basics of how those rules work (including when a biosphere is present). We have, in other words, learned how to think like a planet.

From that vantage point, everything changes.

Of course we triggered climate change. We've been using planetary-scale amounts of energy to build and maintain this amazing planetary-scale project of civilization. Of course the Earth noticed. What else did you expect to happen? Imagine that aliens, with our knowledge of climate, landed on Earth in ancient Rome. They could have looked around and predicted: "Yeah, you guys are gonna trigger climate change in a few thousand years."

In fact, aliens make an important part of this story. Given what we now know about climate, we can see that any large-scale technological civilization developing on any planet would likely trigger its own version of climate change. What is an industrial civilization but a means for converting vast amounts of energy into useful work? The laws of climate literally demand that so much energy use has to transform into planetary feedbacks.

So, yeah, we're a wildly successful species that's built a wildly successful planetary civilization. That changed the climate. Duh. What else did we expect to happen?

But are we smart enough, and successful enough, to see this truth and deal with it effectively?

Given the 10 billion trillion potentially habitable planets in the universe, we are likely not the first time a civilization has appeared and faced the climate change it created. In some cases, that climate change may have become an existential threat to the civilization's existence (as it may become for humanity). So, in the end, the most important question of all may be one we have yet to even fully imagine.

Are we to join the universe's winners who met their climate challenge and moved forward — or will we fade away with the cosmic losers too stubborn to see the truth before their eyes?

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.