How Would Alien Civilizations Deal With Climate Change?

How Would Alien Civilizations Deal With Climate Change?

New research asks a big question: Is there such a thing as a sustainable civilization, perhaps one that lies far beyond our own galaxy? Or are all civilizations doomed to destroy themselves?

“If we’re not the universe’s first civilization, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.”

In the face of climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, creating a sustainable version of civilization is one of humanity’s most urgent tasks. But when confronting this immense challenge, we rarely ask what may be the most pressing question of all: How do we know if sustainability is even possible?

Astronomers have inventoried a sizable share of the universe’s stars, galaxies, comets, and black holes. But are planets with sustainable civilizations also something the universe contains? Or does every civilization that may have arisen in the cosmos last only a few centuries before it falls to the climate change it triggers?

Astrophysicist Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, is part of a group of researchers who have taken the first steps to answer these questions. In a new study in the journal Astrobiology, the group addresses these questions from an “astrobiological” perspective.

“Astrobiology is the study of life and its possibilities in a planetary context,” says Frank, who is also author of the new book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth (W.W. Norton, 2018) which draws on this study. “That includes ‘exo-civilizations’ or what we usually call aliens.”

Frank and his colleagues point out that discussions about climate change rarely take place in this broader context—one that considers the probability that this is not the first time in cosmic history that a planet and its biosphere have evolved into something like what we’ve created on Earth.

“If we’re not the universe’s first civilization,” Frank says, “that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.”

Four scenarios

As a civilization’s population grows, it uses more and more of its planet’s resources. By consuming the planet’s resources, the civilization changes the planet’s conditions. In short, civilizations and planets don’t evolve separately from one another; they evolve interdependently, and the fate of our own civilization depends on how we use Earth’s resources.

In order to illustrate how civilization-planet systems co-evolve, Frank and his collaborators developed a mathematical model to show ways in which a technologically advanced population and its planet might develop together. By thinking of civilizations and planets—even alien ones—as a whole, researchers can better predict what might be required for the human project of civilization to survive.

“The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic,” Frank says. “The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”

Using their mathematical model, the researchers found four potential scenarios that might occur in a civilization-planet system:

1. Die-off: The population and the planet’s state (indicated by something like its average temperature) rise very quickly. Eventually, the population peaks and then declines rapidly as the rising planetary temperature makes conditions harder to survive. A steady population level is achieved, but it’s only a fraction of the peak population. “Imagine if 7 out of 10 people you knew died quickly,” Frank says. “It’s not clear a complex technological civilization could survive that kind of change.”

2. Sustainability: The population and the temperature rise but eventually both come to steady values without any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs in the models when the population recognizes it is having a negative effect on the planet and switches from using high-impact resources, such as oil, to low-impact resources, such as solar energy.

3. Collapse without resource change: The population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and drops precipitously. In these models civilization collapses, though it is not clear if the species itself completely dies outs.

4. Collapse with resource change: The population and the temperature rise, but the population recognizes it is causing a problem and switches from high-impact resources to low-impact resources. Things appear to level off for a while, but the response turns out to have come too late, and the population collapses anyway.

“The last scenario is the most frightening,” Frank says. “Even if you did the right thing, if you waited too long, you could still have your population collapse.”

Looking at Easter Island

The researchers created their models based in part on case studies of extinct civilizations, such as the inhabitants of Easter Island. People began colonizing the island between 400 and 700 CE and grew to a peak population of 10,000 sometime between 1200 and 1500 CE. By the 18th century, however, the inhabitants had depleted their resources and the population dropped drastically to about 2,000 people.

The Easter Island population die-off relates to a concept called carrying capacity, or the maximum number of species an environment can support. The Earth’s response to civilization building is what climate change is really all about, Frank says.

“If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn’t be able to grow food, and our population would diminish.”

Right now researchers can’t definitively predict the fate of the Earth. The next steps will be to use more detailed models of the ways planets might behave when a civilization consumes energy of any form to grow. In the meantime, Frank issues a sober warning.

“If you change the Earth’s climate enough, you might not be able to change it back,” he says. “Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing. These models show we can’t just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilizations co-evolving.”

Source: University of Rochester

Books by Adam Frank

List Price: $26.95
Sale Price: $26.95 $18.32 You save: $8.63
Product Description:

Astrophysicist and NPR commentator on what the latest research on the existence and trajectories of alien civilizations may teach us about our own.

Light of the Stars tells the story of humanity’s coming of age as we awaken to the possibilities of life on other worlds and their sudden relevance to our fate on Earth. Astrophysicist Adam Frank traces the question of alien life and intelligence from the ancient Greeks to the leading thinkers of our own time, and shows how we as a civilization can only hope to survive climate change if we recognize what science has recently discovered: that we are just one of ten billion trillion planets in the Universe, and it’s highly likely that many of those planets hosted technologically advanced alien civilizations. What’s more, each of those civilizations must have faced the same challenge of civilization-driven climate change.

Written with great clarity and conviction, Light of the Stars builds on the inspiring work of pioneering scientists such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, whose work at the dawn of the space age began building the new science of astrobiology; Jack James, the Texas-born engineer who drove NASA’s first planetary missions to success; Vladimir Vernadsky, the Russian geochemist who first envisioned the Earth’s biosphere; and James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who invented Gaia theory. Frank recounts the perilous journey NASA undertook across millions of miles of deep space to get its probes to Venus and Mars, yielding our first view of the cosmic laws of planets and climate that changed our understanding of our place in the universe.

Thrilling science at the grandest of scales, Light of the Stars explores what may be the largest question of all: What can the likely presence of life on other worlds tell us about our own fate?

20 illustrations



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Eloquent, urgent, and inspiring, The Constant Fire tackles the acrimonious debate between science and religion, taking us beyond its stagnant parameters into the wider domain of human spiritual experience. From a Neolithic archaeological site in Ireland to modern theories of star formation, Adam Frank traverses a wide terrain, broadening our sights and allowing us to imagine an alternative perspective. Drawing from his experience as a practicing astrophysicist and from the writings of the great scholars of religion, philosophy, and mythology, Frank locates the connective tissue linking science and religion—their commonality as sacred pursuits—and finds their shared aspiration in pursuit of "the True and the Real." Taking us from the burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600 to Einstein and on to today's pressing issues of global warming and resource depletion, The Constant Fire shows us how to move beyond this stale debate into a more profound experience of the world as sacred—a world that embraces science without renouncing human spirituality.



List Price: $19.00
Price: $19.00
Product Description: Now in paperback, “a phenomenal blend of science and cultural history” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), About Time gives readers a peek into the cutting edge of cosmology, showing how it is intimately wedded to the texture of our daily lives.

Our universe’s “beginning” is at an end. What does this have to do with us, here on Earth? Everything. Our lives are about to be dramatically shaken—as altered as they were by the invention of the clock, the steam engine, the railroad, the radio and the Internet.

In About Time, astrophysicist Adam Frank allows us a peek into the cutting edge of cosmology, explaining how the texture of our lives changes along with our understanding of the universe’s origin. Since we awoke to self-consciousness fifty thousand years ago, our lived experience of time, from hunting and gathering to the invention of cell phones and electronic calendars, has been transformed and rebuilt many times. But the latest theories in cosmology—time with no beginning, parallel universes, eternal inflation—are about to send us in a new direction.

Time is both our grandest and most intimate conception of the universe. Frank tells the story of humanity’s deepest question—when and how did everything begin?—alongside the story of how human beings have experienced time, looking at the way our engagement with the world has allowed us to discover the nature of the universe and how those discoveries inform our daily experience. This astounding book will change the way we think about time and how it affects our lives.



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