Friday, 5 December 2014

Is it time to leave Planet Earth?

I'm wondering if I should start packing my bags. Not for Christmas -- for good. Apparently, we're on course for 2014 to be declared the hottest year ever, both globally and for the UK.

So if we go on like this, at some point Mother Earth will become uninhabitable. True, not in my lifetime, or yours -- but according to one study, it could happen in about 300 years from now. Which, in evolutionary terms, is the twinkling of an eye.

I tend to be a great believer in the power of human ingenuity. I reckon that, on the whole, the human species has shown itself to be remarkably adept at finding solutions to the challenges that threaten us.

For example: when our ancestors realised that raw meat was less easily digested than cooked meat, they started to cook it. When they noticed that babies die in cold temperatures, they swaddled them. When they started to work out how they were infecting each other with life-threatening diseases, they invented drugs. And when they decided they were over-breeding, they came up with contraception.

On the other hand, as the financial investment advertisements always remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Just because we've managed to survive so far doesn't mean we'll survive for ever.

Which brings me to the other news item that caught my eye: NASA's plan to launch a new spacecraft which, one day, could take us to Mars. (A planned launch on Thursday was postponed because of technical problems.) Mars, of course, is the one planet theoretically within reach of Planet Earth that just might somehow be able to support some form of life.

I remember many years ago hosting an international phone-in programme on the BBC World Service when we asked listeners if they thought the billions being spent on research into manned space travel was money well spent. (I've just looked it up -- it was in February 2003, after the loss of the US space shuttle Columbia, and the deaths of all seven astronauts on board.)

You can still read some of the comments online. Typical was this one: "Manned and unmanned space exploration are both extremely important to the future survival of the human species." And that was a view reflected by many of our callers, who said we've got to keep exploring space because one day we'll have to find a new planet to live on.

I have nothing against space travel -- indeed, as a life-long obsessive traveller, I'd happily slip into a space suit and blast off into the bright blue yonder tomorrow if the price was right and I could be guaranteed a safe return.

But I don't share the view that the future of the human race depends on colonising another lump of rock. For me, our future lies right here, on this planet -- and it's up to us to ensure that it remains habitable.

What I find so frustrating is that it really isn't difficult to reduce carbon gas emissions and slow the process of climate change so that we can stay where we are. Retro-fitting of existing buildings, more investment in renewable sources of energy and less carbon-hungry means of transport -- all would be good for the creation of new jobs and exports, and good for the future of the planet as well.

And if, for some reason, you still don't believe that climate change has anything to do with human activity, here's the latest from the UK Met Office. According to Peter Stott, Head of Climate Attribution, their latest research shows that "current global average temperatures are highly unlikely in a world without human influence on the climate. Human influence has also made breaking the current UK temperature record about ten times more likely."

OK, so what if 2014 turns out to be the hottest year on record? One freak result proves nothing. But here's another one of those unfortunate statistics that, in a sane world, should persuade the climate change sceptics finally to admit defeat: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred since the beginning of this century.

Nothing to do with us? Sorry, the evidence is overwhelming. Fortunately, it seems that governments are coming round to the same view, and the international climate change talks currently under way in Peru may end with an agreement that really could make a difference. At last, China and the US, the world's two biggest carbon polluters, are working together on an emissions reduction formula that could work, while safeguarding the interests of the world's poorest countries who are desperate for economic expansion.

So no, I won't be packing my bags. I like the planet I was born on -- and I remain convinced that we will find a way to ensure that it remains human-friendly.

No comments: