Creative Destruction

February 19, 2007

Global Warming and the Environment

Filed under: Environment,Space — Robert @ 6:10 pm

One thing that bugs me about the whole global warming/climate change scuffle is that it tends to obscure discussion of the real questions concerning how we’re going to affect the planet’s environmental status in the future.

One of those questions is: what about the population-rich nations in Asia and Africa? Half the planet, maybe more, lives in one big oval, centered around the Indian Ocean, and encompassing the continent of Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific nations. That oval has some success stories, but economically is struggling at best. Those people, we assume, wish to get rich and live comfortable lives, and the trendlines seem to indicate that over time, that is going to happen. That means cars and big houses and iPods and all the rest of it. Those things have an environmental impact. How do we deal with it?

Another question that needs discussion: How do we mitigate, predict, and where possible control climactic variation? Here’s the thing: we can certainly quibble about the details of climate change and whether people cause it or not. But regardless of human presence, even a brief survey of the climatological history of our planet reveals enormous variation over time, sometimes with cataclysmic effect. So whether anthropogenic global warming is real or not, we face a certain prospect of exciting climactic times now and again. What tools can we develop to help us continue adapting to an ever-changing world?

My guess at these questions: the ultimate answer to both questions, I suspect, is tied up in wealth, and in space travel. Over the long run, it is increasing wealth in the developing world that will cap and then reduce the environmental impact of civilization. One of the keys to that wealth, and to ameliorating disastrous climate effects, is operations in space, particularly near-Earth space. There are exciting engineering technologies on the horizon that make economical access to space an increasing possibility. Right now, it costs something like $5000 per kilogram to get something put into orbit, on top of the high costs to develop your payload. Knock that figure down to $500, or $50, or God bless us $5, and the world changes in fundamental ways.

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