Terraforming… the Wrong Planet?

We see a lot of talk these days about the scientific and humanitarian urgency to terraform, and eventually inhabit, our neighboring planet Mars. Elon Musk seems to be spearheading that movement and cites issues like climate change as to why we need to leave the only home we’ve ever known. The mentality behind it is that because we’re degrading our own planet, we need to move to Mars so that if our planet goes to ruin, the human species has a chance to continue. The idea is that we would first terraform the red planet so that is habitable for us to live on, then colonize the planet with human life.

It’s very…human of us to want to terraform another planet before fixing the issues on our own. Musk has done a good job of perpetuating this idea that our planet is beyond repair as well, which draws focus away from efforts that can minimize our previous impact on our surrounding environment’s ability to sustain human life.

There are a few ways about which we would terraform the red planet. An extreme way of doing so is to nuke the planet’s atmosphere, but some tamer ideas include using the greenhouse effect to our advantage and using superconductors to help create a shield against ultraviolet radiation.

I can go into more detail about these methods, but that’s not why we’re here. Terraforming Mars could cost upwards of $15 trillion, which is quite a hefty price tag. Time and energy should not be spent on the red planet considering that a multitude of issues on our own planet can easily be resolved with that kind of money.

Considering how much we’ve changed our own planet for the worse, we should be spending that money on problems that are affecting people today, not jump-starting a process that can take hundreds if not thousands of years.

Those that are motivated by finances and not our planet wouldn’t be delighted to know that climate change could cut our globe’s economy by over $23 trillion by 2050, which is significantly more urgent than the martian terraforming process that can take millennia.

If terraforming Mars is seen as a “prepare for the worst” scenario, then we can and should look a little closer to home when we reach these dire straits. Mars is not habitable right now, but our planet sustains plenty of life and will do until humanity allows Earth to reach the tipping point to which humanity cannot survive.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Interplanetary_Transport_System_(29343823914).jpg

The tipping point for human survival is still a heck of a lot closer to habitable than conditions on the red planet, so should we reach such dire straits, we should first look into geoengineering our own planet. This sounds like something straight out of a science fiction movie, but is actually very plausible.

There are two primary forms of geoengineering against climate change, Carbon Dioxide Removal (or CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM).

CDR entails the removal of Carbon Dioxide from our atmosphere and transporting it into old geological formations via ship or pipeline. The wonderful news is that we have already done this for over 40 million tons of CO2 and counting. The creation of over 30 Carbon capture and storage facilities has been announced in the past 3 years in the U.S. and Europe, which would capture 130 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide per year as opposed to the 40 million that were captured in 2020.

This procedure has been done, consistently works, and is safe and effective — storing billions of tons underground can help, and there wouldn’t be significant leakage for thousands of years.

This is much less of a sci-fi way to make a planet more habitable, and can definitely make it so we do not have to do something as drastic as leaving the only planet we’ve ever known. It’s something we should keep doing as a supplement to reducing our emissions, so efficient is work is being done on the front and back end.

A more sci-fi kind of geoengineering is solar radiation management, or SRM. This entails artificially reflecting back sunlight similar to the albedo effect created by polar ice caps.

In this case, instead of ice, the plan would be to inject sulfate aerosols and other kinds of particles straight into the atmosphere, which by nature reflect some of the heat and light that come in.

This sounds like something out of a movie, but this happens naturally when volcanoes erupt. When Mount Pinatubo erupted back in 1991, scientists measured a drop in the average global temperature of a little over half a degree celsius.

If we do this at a very controlled level every year, we’d be able to lower and then maintain the average global temperature (in theory). It’s also very cheap (relatively speaking), as it would cost about 10 billion dollars annually to maintain.

Unlike Carbon capture and storage, however, solar radiation management is something that should be used as a worst-case scenario instead of something we should prioritize at the moment, for a number of reasons.

The first is the lack of research- we’ve studied this extensively in theory, but haven’t done much in practice. Harvard’s solar geoengineering program is currently looking into this, and is leading a large-scale experiment to see how feasible SRM really is. Hopefully, we get the fruitful results we need.

The second is that we run the risk of termination shock, which is when the support system suddenly fails. If this happens, temperatures will skyrocket to what they would’ve been without the interference created by SRM, and that’ll mean the worst for people and animals.

We also have to worry about who’s in charge of it-it’s a global process, and we don’t know what can happen if any country (or countries) would be given this kind of power and used it in the wrong way.

There’s also the issue of who pays for it. Sure, in the grand scheme of things 10 billion dollars a year isn’t a ton of money when the global GDP is 80 billion dollars a year, but countries on the right side of the political spectrum will probably not want to put the money up, even though they’re likely the ones that brought us into this mess in the first place.

Representation is another issue. Say countries green light this even though there’s somewhat a risk of termination shock, if the worst happens, people in coastal areas are going to be badly affected but usually don’t get the political representation that they need.

If the worst happens with climate change and we can figure out the hurdles with SRM, then it isn’t a horrible failsafe to keep us on our planet.

Terraforming Mars would be a massive gamble, as it is would be much more expensive than geoengineering our own planet and there would not even be a guarantee that it would work. Prioritizing another planet is just a way for us to distract ourselves from the very real, yet fixable, issues going on at home. Our main priority should be to reduce emissions and find a way to live renewably so that the way we live life isn’t significantly disrupted and we don’t damage entire populations, ecosystems, and cities. If the worst comes, geoengineering can be a potential failsafe, one that is miles better than trying to create an entirely new environment.

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Mehul Kamran

Mehul Kamran

Sustainability & Tech Enthusiast

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