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Why the UN cares about climate change — and aliens

Any alien civilization that grows to span an entire planet would spark the same effects that we have. So, what do we do about it?
climate change
Credit: lassedesignen / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • After more than 50 years of warnings, talks, and pacts, we have failed to address climate change. Now it is bearing down on us. 
  • The wrong story about climate change is "humans just suck." In fact, any alien civilization that grows to span an entire planet would spark the same effects that we have.
  • We still have a world to shape, and we are going to need all the ideas we can get.

So now that we have failed, what comes next?  

I ask this question today because the United Nations recently asked it of me and a group of other scholars. The UN’s question was about global warming. It stemmed from the remarkable reality that after more than 50 years of scientific warnings, economic analysis, and diplomatic efforts, our global civilization simply could not get together and prevent the climate change that is now bearing down on us.

The UN contacted us because this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the first high-level global diplomatic meeting on humans and the environment. To mark the occasion, another meeting was being held in Stockholm, Sweden, the same city that hosted the first gathering back in 1972. While some of the change that has taken place since then is worth celebrating, it is hard to get past how badly we have failed to address climate change. So if decades of talks, pacts, and treaties have failed to produce the results we need, maybe we should try different methods. That’s why the UN called in the scholars. Our job was to give the diplomats some outside perspectives that might help humanity better face down this challenge.

I gave them aliens.

Right and wrong stories about climate change

Well, what I really gave them was the Astrobiology of the Anthropocene

Astrobiology is the study of life in its full astronomical context. The Anthropocene is the name given to the geological epoch into which human activity has driven the Earth. Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have been exploring the possibility that any energy-intensive civilization that emerges on any planet might drive its world into a climate-changed state. Through modeling and explorations of Earth’s past, we have been giving shape to a new narrative about global warming that places human beings within the long story of life and the planet evolving together. And new narratives matter. As I put it in the opening of my contribution to the UN: 

“It has been said that the first human technology was the story. When we meet someone for the first time, we do not ask for their scientific metrics — their height, weight, blood type or DNA profile. Instead, we ask for their story. Where did they grow up? How long have they lived in the neighborhood? What do they do for work? As individuals and as cultures, we human beings have always understood ourselves and our place in the world through the stories we tell. Thus, it is critical to recognize that when it comes to climate change, we have been telling ourselves the wrong story.

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The wrong story is that human beings just suck, and we are a virus the planet will eventually exterminate. The right story is that we and our civilization are nothing more than another experiment the biosphere is running, just like it did when it “invented” microbes that added oxygen to the atmosphere in a new form of photosynthesis. We are what the biosphere is doing now, but we do not have to be what it does for another 1,000 years into the future. 

The wrong story is also having to argue with climate denialists over whether we changed the Earth’s climate. The right story is recognizing that we built a planet-spanning civilization that consumes a significant fraction of the biosphere’s energy budget. That means there was no way we weren’t going to trigger climate change. Climate change is how any planet would respond to such an impact. It would be the same for any alien civilization populating any distant planet. The only question before us now is whether we are smart enough to see what we’re doing, and to make changes. 

Change is coming

The new narrative so desperately needed starts with recognizing that we are, as Carl Sagan put it, “cosmic teenagers.” As I wrote in my contribution:

“We have gained so much power over ourselves and the world we inhabit and yet we lack the maturity to use that power with wisdom, grace and compassion. But, like all teenagers, we need stories to guide us. We need stories of possibility and hope, danger and courage, love and redemption. Because of its broad view of planets and life, the astrobiological perspective can offer us those stories. Recognizing our place in a Universe teeming with worlds and possibilities, its scientific narrative of co-evolution, and the possibilities of integration between biosphere and technosphere can be one fulcrum that allows us to get past polarization and support the heavy lifting required to build the first iteration of a sustainable, just, equitable, free and fully inclusive human civilization.”

This new narrative of climate change for aliens was just one of many ideas put before the UN diplomats. Jason Hickel, a political economist, argued that you cannot have an economy based on continuous growth when you live on a finite planet. David Passarelli and Adam Day suggested new ways to incentivize change with positive rather than negative feedback mechanisms. Elena Bennett and Belinda Reyers tried looking at the relationship between the environment and society through the kaleidoscope of multiple spatial and temporal scales all acting at once. Krushil Watane offered a Māori perspective on intergenerational justice that completely inverted the relationship between us and the generations that will bear the costs of our inaction. 

These and the other contributions are all worth reading, and I hope you will take the time to look at them. Change is coming one way or another now. Humanity is not going extinct, but we are likely to have a rougher time of it until that change does come. This means we still have a world to shape, and we are going to need all the alternative ideas we can get.

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