Copenhagen or Bust: What Space Junk Teaches Us About Climate Change

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space_junkThis week, the international community launched another attempt at world governance around climate change.  But in the lead-up to what has been called our last chance to mitigate the most severe consequences of human-induced climate change, a sputtering world economy, political anxiety, and legislative lethargy may have derailed the entire process before it even began.  The goal now: hammer out the foundation for a later agreement.  With the clock ticking, can we afford to wait?

What space junk teaches us is that we get down to the business of debating solutions only after the cause of the problem has had sufficient time to germinate and evolve into something far more insidious.  Before climate change events reach a tipping point, however, we owe it to ourselves to revisit the enabling circumstances that precipitated it in the first place so that we can begin to enact smarter policies aimed at systemic change.  Copenhagen must be that opportunity.

Earlier this year, for the first time ever, two intact satellites collided producing 500-600 new pieces of space debris.  The story was not widely reported, but as pointed out in an article by Seed Magazine, ”[It] may represent the tipping point where debris becomes the principle threat to objects in orbit.”  Experts warn that the event signals the beginning of a cascade of collisions that will likely rise in frequency.  Right now, the problem is bad enough that space shuttles have had to steer around debris.  These are multi-billion dollar pieces of machinery, and soon they may be nuclear-powered.

As Donald Kessler, a retired NASA scientist of “Kessler Syndrome” fame, describes:

What we’re seeing now is a slow-motion cascade.  We just had our first catastrophic collision.  In probably about eight years, we’ll have another, and in a little bit shorter time there’ll be a third.  It’s just not yet at the critical density that we’re noticing it.

So what are we doing about it?

Right now…nothing.  Although we spent the money to send the equipment into orbit in the first place, including satellites and spent rocket stages, we lack a silver bullet to reverse the problem.  As the same Seed Magazine article points out, cleaning up existing debris is impractical and expensive.  Cash-strapped national and private programs are hesitant to support initiatives requiring the deorbiting of satellites.  And better future technology can’t solve the problem alone.

Sound familiar?

As with space junk, climate change experts warn that we are experiencing the beginnings of a slow-motion cascade marked by more intense hurricanes, the relocation of climate refugees, and glaciers calving around the world.  Governments will have to contend with wide-scale desertification, sea-level rise, and more intense storms.  Future predictions suggest much worse: an ice-free Arctic Ocean, resource wars, and a complete shutdown of the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt.  Meanwhile, population growth, increasing energy demand, and positive feedback loops are contributing to an acceleration of increasingly catastrophic climate change events.  And that could be just the tip of the iceberg so to speak.

We’ve all heard the warnings, so what are we doing about it?

Right now…nothing.  To be fair, the projected costs are steep and the solutions complex.  And like space junk, climate change events have not yet reached a critical density to cause sufficient alarm.  But as heads of state descend on Copenhagen in the coming days, the danger with deferment is that it could presage environmental catastrophe.

As with space junk, climate change is a commons problem.  Writing forty years ago, Garrett Hardin set forth a seminal indictment of human behavior in the commons.  For those unfamiliar, The Tragedy of the Commons goes something like this: herders share a pasture on which their cattle graze; each herder seeks to maximize his profits by adding an additional cow to his herd, “and another; and another,”; until ultimately, all the grass is eaten.  In short, free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation.

Hardin points out later in the article that the same principle holds true with pollution, where instead of taking something out of the commons (e.g. grass for cattle), we put something in.

We have demonstrated throughout history that in the unregulated commons we are alarmingly adept at polluting, or (what Hardin describes) “fouling our own nest.”  We have seen it in the world’s oceans, fresh water resources, in space, and now, in the atmosphere where the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have caused an alarming accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.  Fouling is putting it nicely, and the worst part: we’re watching it happen right before our eyes.  Hardin shows us that left to our individual impulses in a legal vacuum, we aren’t very good at environmental temperance.

As we watch expensive junk colliding in space, perhaps we can begin to appreciate that dumping pollutants into the commons may lead to catastrophic environmental events before we’ve generated the political will to do anything about it.  Only from that perspective can we appreciate the importance of temperance and precaution going forward.

The commons is capable of effective regulation, which is why consensus in Copenhagen is so important.  Only nations and governments have the authority and influence to galvanize the scale of collective action to regulate global pollution.  Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Peace Prize this year for showing that private associations can avoid the tragedy of the commons and efficiently manage resources when rules are perceived as legitimate.  Coordinated action at the international level would provide such legitimacy and initiate widespread climate temperance at the moment when it’s needed most.

[photo: Andrew Coulter Enright]

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: EPA Rules that Greenhouse Gases Threaten Public Health and the Environment | BIOMASS INTEL

  2. Uh.. did you hear about that little thing now called “Climate Gate”. Scientific malfeasance, corruption of peer review, lost data. The whole edifice was based on the CRU data and the interpretation by a very small cabal. Most of what you think you know about the science has been shown to be made up.

    There is no scientific basis for any assertion of AGW. You are living in a world of magical thinking. It is time to get real… like the space junk.

    • James –

      As you rightly pointed out, “Climategate” is a little thing. If the negotiations in Copenhagen are any indication, pulling off consensus on the international stage (let along a widespread conspiracy) is next to impossible.

      While the whole Climategate fiasco raises serious concerns about scientists behaving irresponsibly and casts a cloud over the peer review process, it is important to keep some perspective in mind. These were just a few individuals among many, and the manipulation of data is not on a sufficient enough scale to cast reasonable doubt on the body of evidence, scientific or otherwise…

      Before you or any of us debunk AGW or IPCC findings altogether, we should recognize the fact that:

      “Almost one thousand scientists from over one hundred countries wrote the report, drawing upon many thousands of research papers (including the ones the email correspondents did not like—in the same chapter that they coordinated), and tens of thousands of data series, redundantly confirming the same trends again and again and again.”

  3. We had numerous economic turmoils with “dirty” technology, why afraid economical consequences of managing our environment in a more sensible way? How else, beside treehugging can we motivate this? If anything, it will be a major boost to the technologies at humanity’s disposal. Something newer then combustion engines, which been around for 200 years would be a great thing to have, don’t you think?

    Look up Great Pacific Garbage patch, a swirl of plastic particles, acting as a sponge for heavy elements and leeching into the global food chain.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch

    And indeed James, let’s get real and stop living in a world with spoon-fed unsustainable technologies.

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