Saturday, 2 January 2010

Killer Asteroids

Recent news report have been talking about how Russia is planning a massive effort to put together a system to prevent the collision of a large asteroid with the Earth. NASA also has a program to monitor space for large objects that could come close to the planet and to make plans for dealing with any objects that have a significant probability of impacting the Earth. It is prudent and wise to make plans to protect our future planet, but if we fail to address the urgent problems of climate change, there won't be much left to protect.

The object the Russians seem to be worried about is nicknamed "Apophis", and there was a concern several years ago that this could hit the Earth in 2029. Data gathered since then, however, shows this to be extremely unlikely. Still, the idea of scanning space and ensuring we know where all the large objects are, and when they might hit the Earth, is very important. We know large asteroids do hit the planet from time to time and can cause great damage and even massive extinctions, as with the dinosaurs.

While we may not have the technology or infrastructure today to prevent an impact, if we can detect a possible collision several decades in advance, this would give us the time needed to put together a real effort to avert catastrophe. The chance of a major impact in our lifetimes is very small, but the potential destruction so high, that it makes sense to do this. Preventing an impact would likely cost in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, but there is little doubt the world would rally around such an imminent threat and do what was needed.

It is ironic that we might spend our time and effort on trying to avert unlikely catastrophes, while allowing a concrete and real one to take place in front of our eyes. Contrast a hypothetical international summit on dealing with a potentially life-ending asteroid impact with our dismal failure at Copenhagen. Perhaps more importantly, contrast the likely reaction and pressure of the public in the former case, as opposed to the latter.

Of course, in the case of an asteroid collision, while it may be off 20 years in the future, the consequences are well known and have a specific date attached to them. When the destruction comes, it comes all at once and instantly. One day, everything is fine, the next millions are dead, or worse. In the case of climate change, however, the consequences are gradual. There's no specific drop-dead date. As time passes, things get worse, and more and more people die, but there's a continuum, not a singularity.

One might think that the threat of the destruction of our environment and the death of millions would be sufficient impetus for serious action, but this belies our history. Already today, an average of 30,000 children die every day from starvation and preventable disease. That's over 10 million a year. In this case, the cause isn't global warming, of course. Where are the massive efforts to prevent this macabre, yet pedestrian, situation?

The unfortunate reality is that without a gun to our heads, we rarely do what is needed. And if that gun happens to be pointed at the heads of people in the third world, we are often even less likely to take action (assuming, of course, we aren't the ones holding the gun). But climate change doesn't point at gun at us. Instead, it slowly poisons us, with the weakest and poorest feeling its effects first.

Supposedly, if a frog is put in a pot of water and the heat raised very slowly to boiling, the frog will not realize its danger and will not jump from the pot, leading to its demise. Of course, this is only a myth, often used as a metaphor. In reality the frog will indeed jump out when the heat gets too high. Today, the heat is being turned up on humanity, and it remains to be seen if we are as smart as the frog.

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