There’s this idea in science called the Fermi Paradox. Basically, the paradox goes like this: because the universe is so vast and old, life in the universe must be common. Given enough time, intelligent life will appear that could eventually travel the galaxy. So the question is, why haven’t they visited Earth yet?
I’ve always thought the answer to the paradox is that space is massive. The nearest star to Earth besides the sun is trillions of kilometers away. It makes sense that we haven’t bumped into our galactic neighbors yet. But there’s another theory that I’ve begun to take more seriously.
The theory states that intelligent species destroy themselves before they reach a level of technological advancement sufficient to travel across the galaxy. Humanity made tremendous progress in the 20th century, going from Kitty Hawk to the moon in 66 years. However, that progress was closely tied to the Cold War, and to missile technology that was also designed for delivering nuclear weapons. We have the weapons now to destroy ourselves, but we’re nowhere close to interstellar travel. Will we avoid nuclear war long enough to let technology take us to distant stars?
There will certainly be more wars in the future, and I think (or I sincerely hope) that we will avoid the use of nuclear weapons in those conflicts. But nuclear war is not the existential threat of the moment right now. Human-caused climate change is, and I’ve accepted that climate change most likely means the end of our species.
Two events in the past month made me feel this way. The first was the Supreme Court’s decision to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate emissions in the power sector. The EPA will now need to show specific authority from Congress to impose regulations of “economic and political significance,” which severely limits its ability to act without approval from a typically deadlocked Congress.
The second was a story that showed that, despite lowered emissions of methane in 2020 and 2021, levels in the atmosphere actually increased to record amounts. Scientists theorize that increased carbon dioxide from wildfires is disrupting a chemical reaction that removes methane from the atmosphere. So climate change is accelerating in ways we didn’t even predict.
Even without the constant bad news, the anecdotal evidence for a changing, more extreme climate is undeniable. It feels like we’ve passed the tipping point; climate change is irrevocable. Past extinction events were triggered by splashy events, such as volcanic eruptions or asteroid collisions. But the true cause were the climate disruptions caused by these events – a runaway greenhouse effect similar to what we’re seeing today. The slower-moving nature of our current climate catastrophe gives us the potential to make changes to avoid our own destruction, but it looks unlikely that we’ll take the steps necessary to do so.
There have been some bright spots. US Sen. Joe Manchin’s sudden reversal on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 has raised the hopes that Congress will approve almost $370 billion to fight climate change. This would represent the largest investment the federal government has made to slow climate change – yet it’s only half the amount the same Congress is considering for the military this year.
Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and I’ve allowed myself to feel the tiniest sliver of hope that humanity will get its act together to head off the absolute worst of climate change. There are many barriers to saving ourselves, not the least of which is climate denialism that places the profitability of the status quo over the survival of our species. We need real, coordinated effort between the nations of the world to reduce emissions even further. And if worse comes to worst, we may require some miracle scientific breakthrough to roll back the damage we’ve already done.
As I said, these things seem unlikely.
I’m certain there’s life somewhere out there in the universe, perhaps even intelligent life. In thousands or millions of years, when they develop faster-than-light travel, they may come to visit our little corner of the cosmos. Will they find a thriving, multi-planet civilization that has successfully met its self-made extinction challenge, or a hot, inhospitable planet littered with the remnants of humanity? It’s up to us, which is unfortunately the good and the bad news.