STEM Opinion: Climate change influences the search for a new home

By AZRIEL OLMEDO

An artist’s concept of Kepler-196f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a star in the habitable zone, a range of distance from a star where bodies of water may form on the planet’s surface and potentially sustain life. (Rodney Grubbs / NASA)

For eons, mankind believed that Earth was one of a kind, marking it as the only planet capable of sustaining life. Evidence obtained over the years from the world’s greatest technological advancements in space exploration has dismissed the idea that Earth is unique. Planets are discovered almost every day, each possessing distinguishable feats and flaws and some closely resembling Earth in size, temperature and even environment. The fascinating sector of space that contains countless possibilities for habitable worlds is nicknamed “The Goldilocks Zone.”

Every solar system has a circumstellar habitable zone, which is defined as the region around a star where planets could sustain life. Most planets that are capable of life need three essentials to be considered a grade-A planet: adequate bodies of water, weather and environment. 

However, it is uncommon to find all three qualities in one despite the planet being marked as habitable. Many planets possess major flaws that detract from the “habitable” portion of the title. For example, in 2018, NASA discovered water vapor in the atmosphere of an enormous Saturn-sized planet with 1,430 degrees Fahrenheit days. The chances of finding a suitable home beyond Earth are low as most planets in nearby solar systems are either too hot or too cold, and only some are potentially just right.

Carl Sagan, founder and first president of the international project-based foundation The Planetary Society, summarized the future of mankind in one sentence: “All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct.” This statement expresses humanity’s clear dedication to space exploration, and thus evokes a strong sense of determination to find a new home. However, this goal generates concerns about the world and its future—how long can the Earth last with a new problem on the horizon? 

Climate change was first brought to the world’s attention in the late 1800s by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, who concluded that the planet’s temperatures would rise due to the effects of greenhouse gases. The Greenhouse Effect describes the phenomena where burning fossil fuels release pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and ozone into the atmosphere which trap energy from the Sun; this is considered the main cause of global warming. Everything released from burning fossil fuels becomes a greenhouse gas.

Earth’s future has been a serious point of discussion since the discovery of climate change and various environmental organizations have formed to help preserve our home. In terms of fundraising, more than “1,000 non-profit organizations are raising money for the environment” in order to “preserve land, protect endangered species and encourage environmentalism,” according to the fundraising platform Mightycause. Worldwide, environmental activists raise as much as $11 billion yearly according to Charity Navigator’s Giving Statistics. 

Beyond our troubles at home, NASA, which has the biggest budget for space exploration by far, spends “more than $20 billion, with its budget increasing yearly by 1.05 percent,” according to The Planetary Society. This significant gap in funds demonstrates mankind’s belief that finding another suitable home is far more important than saving the Earth. It is reasonable to expect that the Earth will soon become inhabitable in the future, considering the amount of plastic and waste pollutants in the ocean and the excessive combustion of fossil fuels.

A paper published in the journal Science Advances in April 2019 called the “Global Deal for Nature” posited that to save the planet there needs to be a minimum income of $100 billion to carry out conservation efforts. Global Deal for Nature reports that it will “increase habitat protection and restoration” and overall help “save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth.”

Many scientists have gone so far as to construct a timeline of future events that will result in the Earth’s demise, with some ranging from millions to billions of years. Stephen Hawking, however, was of the opinion that “humanity will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive.” Realistically speaking, there is no possible way for humanity to colonize a habitable planet in time. 

Is space exploration the new top priority besides saving Earth? Will Earthlings ever colonize new worlds? These are questions that will hopefully be answered in the near future, as humanity seems to be working diligently towards both causes.

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