Astro­bi­ol­o­gist David Grin­spoon looks ahead

The Denver Post - - LIFE&CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

Na­tion­ally-renowned sci­en­tist, au­thor and some­time-Colorado res­i­dent David Grin­spoon — now se­nior sci­en­tist at the Plan­e­tary Sci­ence In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — is beg­ging us to take the long view of hu­man­ity’s stew­ard­ship of Planet Earth.

The re­ally long view, as in 10,000 years.

We spoke with Grin­spoon, a peer of Neil deGrasse Tyson (and, like Tyson, a pro­tégé of Carl Sagan) over the phone in ad­vance of events pro­mot­ing his new book “Earth in Hu­man Hands: Shap­ing Our Planet’s Fu­ture” at the Den­ver Mu­seum of Na­ture & Sci­ence on Dec. 13, fol­lowed by a Jan. 17 ap­pear­ance at the Boul­der Book Store.

Q: You’re one of the top plan­e­tary sci­en­tists in the world. How did your time in Colorado in­flu­ence your ca­reer?

A: I lived in Colorado for more than

two decades and I’m still an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at CUBoul­der, so I get out there a lot. I came orig­i­nally to be fac­ulty at CU in as­tron­omy and plan­e­tary sci­ence, then I was a re­search sci­en­tist at the South­west Re­search In­sti­tute in Boul­der. I’ve also been do­ing NASA­funded re­search for a num­ber of years, and I was cu­ra­tor of as­tro­bi­ol­ogy at the Den­ver Mu­seum of Na­ture & Sci­ence un­til a cou­ple years ago, so Colorado still feels like home to me. Be­tween CU, the Den­ver mu­seum and aerospace com­pa­nies, peo­ple in Colorado may not re­al­ize they’re liv­ing in a mecca for space re­search.

Q: What do you study these days?

A: I do a lot of work with NASA and am in­volved in re­search projects study­ing plan­e­tary evo­lu­tion, Earth­like plan­ets and po­ten­tial con­di­tions for life else­where. I’ve been in­volved in a cou­ple of space­craft projects — Venus is another Colorado con­nec­tion, be­cause the con­trac­tor we’re work­ing with is Lock­heed Martin. As a writer (with by­lines in The New York Times and Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can) I’m also work­ing on another book with Alan Stern from Colorado about Pluto. (Stern) was the lead sci­en­tist of the Pluto mis­sion New Hori­zons, which suc­ceeded against so many odds.

Q: How bad are con­di­tions go­ing to have to get for peo­ple to do some­thing dras­tic about cli­mate change?

A: That’s a fair ques­tion, as there’s def­i­nitely a lot of anx­i­ety about the fu­ture. But the fact that we can even be hav­ing this dis­cus­sion, be­lieve it or not, is a sign of progress. Thirty years ago no­body was think­ing or talk­ing about cli­mate change, even though it was al­ready start­ing to hap­pen. Now it’s on the screen — not just here but world­wide. And of course there’s push­back be­cause it’s very alarm­ing to re­al­ize we are now a species that is al­ter­ing the planet.

Q: As you so elo­quently put it in the book: “Never be­fore has a ge­o­log­i­cal force been aware of its own ex­is­tence.”

A: Some peo­ple think the book ti­tle is self-ag­gran­diz­ing, but that’s part of my point: the im­age of Earth in hu­man hands is not meant to just be com­fort­ing, but also alarm­ing. We’ve been thrust into this role of planet-chang­ers, and that’s very dis­ori­ent­ing and we don’t re­ally know how to han­dle it, so why shouldn’t we just throw up our hands? Be­cause we drop the Earth.

Q: What does the long view tell you?

A: If you study hu­man his­tory you see time and time again we’ve faced ex­is­ten­tial threats much more dire than we’re fac­ing now. We’ve al­most been wiped out as a species many times, go­ing back mil­lions of years, and we’ve sur­vived by rein­vent­ing our­selves and en­larg­ing our cir­cles of aware­ness, in­vent­ing new tech­nolo­gies and so­cial struc­tures. Now we’re in this phase of rapid tran­si­tion of the world be­ing knit to­gether, and the re­ac­tion to that is frag­men­ta­tion. But if you look at long-term trends, by any rea­son­able mea­sure — in­fant mor­tal­ity be­ing cut in half in 25 years, av­er­age life ex­pectancy go­ing up, the

global de­cline of ex­treme poverty, pop­u­la­tion lev­el­ing off this cen­tury, ed­u­ca­tion rates ris­ing — there’s rea­son to be hope­ful.

Q: Will it hap­pen quickly enough to avert even more wide­spread droughts, fires, ris­ing seas and other cli­mate-change pre­dic­tions that are al­ready start­ing to hap­pen?

A: We’re go­ing to get off fos­sil fu­els, no ques­tion. We may not do it quickly enough to avoid some pain, and I’m quite wor­ried about that. But by the 22nd cen­tury there’s no way we’ll be on fos­sil fu­els. Even if we were stupid we’d run out, and by then we’ll be re­pair­ing the dam­age we’re caus­ing now. I’m not say­ing the 21st cen­tury is go­ing to be great… if we re­ally screw it up, it might ac­tu­ally be as bad as the 20th cen­tury.

Q: Some might say the 20th cen­tury was pretty great. A: It wasn’t. What about the 100 mil­lion peo­ple who

died in famines and wars? … Our chal­lenge is to make the 21st bet­ter than the 20th. But there’s no doubt in my mind the 22nd and 23rd will be bet­ter.

Q: That’s cold com­fort for the present. How will we get there?

A: We are uniquely gifted with fore­sight, and we learn through catas­tro­phe and calamity, so when things go hor­ri­bly wrong we learn to do things dif­fer­ently. We can do this the easy way or the hard way, and it’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be some com­bi­na­tion of the two.

Q: Is there an ar­ro­gance or short-sight­ed­ness in think­ing we’re liv­ing in un­prece­dented times?

A: We’re not the first species to change the world in huge ways, but we are the first ones to say, “Hey, look what we’re do­ing. Where’s this go­ing? Should we change course?” One ex­am­ple I give is about 2 and 1/2 bil­lion years ago, these crea­tures called cyanobac­te­ria

oxy­genated the at­mos­phere, which was poi­son to most species and wiped most of them out. So life had to be able to evolve to han­dle it. It was a much big­ger change than what’s hap­pen­ing now, but what’s dif­fer­ent is now we can have this con­ver­sa­tion about what it means. Q: What makes you op­ti­mistic?

A: No­body can pre­dict the fu­ture be­cause of game chang­ers and non-lin­ear­ity. No­body, whether they’re cli­mate mod­el­ers, fu­tur­ol­o­gists or econ­o­mists, has a truly good model. It could be worse than any­one thinks, but any­one con­vinced of cer­tain doom is also naive. If there’s one thing I tried to do with (this book) it was to think in ge­o­logic time and plan­e­tary his­tory. In those terms, what’s hap­pen­ing now is a blip. Some­times blips can be­come turn­ing points, some­times not. Q: Where do you see us

go­ing in the next few years?

A: I don’t think the pres­i­dent-elect will do that much that changes the dis­cus­sion with re­gards to cli­mate change. We’ve now had a pres­i­dent for 8 years who said the right things about cli­mate but wasn’t able to do that much. There are in­ex­orable eco­nomic forces go­ing in the right di­rec­tion. For ex­am­ple, coal is on its way out. It doesn’t mat­ter what peo­ple say, it’s not go­ing to be re­vived. A lot of the ac­tion in cli­mate pol­icy is now at the state and lo­cal level. And frankly, the U.S. is not the whole world. China is get­ting re­ally con­cerned about cli­mate change be­cause their cities are get­ting un­liv­able. The rest of the world has to act. If we don’t lead, that’s too bad, but we can’t halt it.

Pro­vided by Grand Cen­tral Pub­lish­ing

Au­thor and astro­bi­ol­o­gist David Grin­spoon will pro­mote his new book, “Earth in Hu­man Hands: Shap­ing Our Planet’s Fu­ture,” at the Den­ver Mu­seum of Na­ture & Sci­ence on Dec. 13.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.