Climate change

The politics of climate change

The Republican party’s campaign against nature

October 18th 2017 | Chicago | Xavier Ward

Photograph from NASA

On June 1st, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. It was not necessarily unexpected given his previous train of Obama-era policy reversals, but nonetheless his decision was met with widespread criticism from politicians, environmentalists, and business leaders around the world. Yet, his own party members have either continued to praise the decision to withdraw or remained silent on the issue.

Climate science

For the political party that has heralded global climate change as a non-issue, natural fluctuation in the climate, or – as the President has said – a “myth” conjured by the Chinese, this response, much like the President’s decision, was unsurprising.

According to Article II, The agreement aimed to keep global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels, decrease greenhouse gas emissions in a way that does not halt food production, and carve a financial pathway consistent with those aims.

Nearly all scientists – at an overwhelming 97% of peer-reviewed studies – agree that global climate change is real. Through recent research, we have been able to tie human activity and industrialisation directly to this unprecedented global rise in temperatures.

Diagram from NASA

Ever since the second industrial revolution, planet Earth has been facing the most dramatic rise in climate change and pollution that human civilisation has ever witnessed.

Now, with the new millennium’s rapidly increasing trends of globalisation and consumerism, the threat of reaching a “tipping point” caused by positive feedback loops in the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) looms dangerously close.

Since its establishment in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has continuously upgraded its synthesis of the scientific community’s opinion, most recently stating that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of climate change due to the anthropogenic release of GHGs.

Failing to meet the Paris Agreement’s vision could result in a range of catastrophic consequences, including failing crop yields, melting glaciers, decreased water availability, damaged coral reefs, rapid extinction, and extreme weather events.

Political fuel

So, knowing all this, why were Republican lawmakers under the Trump administration elated at the decision to withdraw from this agreement? What element are we missing from this equation of facts?

Lobbyism is the likely answer. After all, the oil industry’s campaign donations and close relationships with the GOP are no coincidence. They are the manipulators of a deliberate and long-standing strategy to undermine climate science at every opportunity, and the results thus far have been disastrous.

Yet, it was not so long ago that a Republican, not a Democrat, ran a presidential campaign with a pro-environment agenda. As The New York Times reported shortly after the president’s decision to withdraw from the accord, it was Republican Senator John McCain who had run against former President Barack Obama on a climate change platform in 2008.

Photograph from Democracy Now!

McCain touted himself as the man who stood tough on climate change in the face of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. And more recently, he suggested that America should uphold the Paris Agreement, citing the death of the Great Barrier Reef as a symptom of global climate change.

He has since been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Unfortunately for the 81-year-old senator and Vietnam War veteran, treatment options are limited. However, he is not alone as a Republican in the fight against climate change.

Other politically vocal Republicans – politicians or otherwise – have also articulated concerns about climate change. In March, 17 Republicans introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledging climate change as a real, man-made phenomenon.

“We want the caucus to act as an ideas factory for climate change solutions,” said Carlos Curbelo, Florida Republican Congressman who co-chairs the Climate Solutions Caucus. “We will be modest at first, but I think you’ll see more and more ideas.”

International multilaterialism

Nevertheless, when Trump decided to withdraw, Republicans were largely united in their praise of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement.

When did that become a trend among Republicans? And why must Republican politicians either oppose climate change or remain silent on the issue?

When his decision was made public, Trump cited the “draconian” nature of the agreement, stating that it set in place arbitrary climate goals that hurt U.S. workers and businesses.

Photograph from C-SPAN

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the President said in his speech. He then stated that he would personally call the leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Canada to reassure his commitment to trans-Atlantic relations and tell them that he wished to negotiate a better deal for Americans.

Only minutes later, however, the leaders of France, Italy, and Germany issued a joint statement stating that the climate standards set in place by the Paris Agreement were non-negotiable.

Withdrawal from the agreement marked a victory for former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who both reportedly urged the president to withdraw behind closed doors.

Coal is doomed

The isolationist and job-centric justification that Trump gave for his decision, all while decrying the empirical findings of climate science, is in-line with much of the other rhetoric witnessed during his campaign and throughout his early days in office.

On the campaign trail, Trump gave an impassioned decree to the people of Pennsylvania that he would bring coal workers back to the mines and steel back to Pittsburgh.

The rough-and-tumble industries that built the area are now struggling, and many of the workers in the formerly lucrative industries spend their days sending out résumés rather than hauling coal or refining steel.

Photograph by Mark Lyons

Still, his lavish campaign promises struck a chord with workers seeking to remedy a dying industry. Just enough to get their votes. It’s no coincidence that Trump won Greene County, Pennsylvania by a whopping 40 points, where John McCain and former President Obama nearly tied in the presidential election.

Coal jobs are projected to their lowest numbers since 1978, and roughly 30,000 jobs have been lost in the past few years. Withdrawing from the Paris accord will not bring jobs back to these industries, and therein lies the issue with his justification for leaving.

Renewable progress

According to a survey from The Solar Foundation, jobs in the solar industry have soared in past decade, showing aggressive job growth since 2010 with around 260,000 Americans employed in that ecosystem.

The only energy industry that still employs more than solar is oil & petroleum, which constitutes 38% of the country’s energy workers.

Trump’s commitment to job growth may seem noble at the surface level, but the reality is that the industry is dying. Human workers are being replaced by machines, old methods are being swept aside by new technology, and mines all across coal country are closing.

Photograph from WindEurope

Despite the apparent facts, Republican lawmakers still praised the President’s decision to leave this historic agreement with 195 countries committed to fighting climate change together.

In the Trump era, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the archetype of the Republican establishment. He was a vocal critic of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, and even rescinded an invitation to speak at a major event in his home state of Wisconsin after tapes emerged of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and entering their changing rooms during a pageant.

However, when Trump actually secured the votes he needed to claim the office of the President, Ryan said that Trump had done a great thing for the Republican establishment by giving them control of all three branches of government.

Time is running out

Since he took office in January, the Republican establishment has grown ever more congruent with Trump’s agenda. Whether it is for fear of voter backlash or out of general unwillingness to break from establishment ideology, the GOP continues to add fuel to the fire of Trump’s rhetoric against climate science.

The result is a nation filled with people who are in denial of the facts: climate change is the greatest existential threat our species has ever faced. Politics can always change, but the environment only has one chance.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

Electromagnetic Propulsion

Could NASA’s EM drive defy the laws of physics?

A look at this exciting Star Trek technology and its skeptics

June 13th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Paramount Pictures

Rumours about the Electromagnetic Propulsion Drive, or EM Drive, have been echoing throughout the internet for several years.

This April, NASA tested this curious piece of technology at the Johnson Space Center, confirming that it was indeed able to produce propulsion in a vacuum.

Rocket engines as we know them have always produced propulsion by venting exhaust, which emerges at a high pressure as a result of combustion and causes an opposite reaction. In other words, whilst exhaust exits in one direction, the engine is propelled in the other.

This is in line with the principle of conservation of momentum; but the results of the EM Drive experiments suggest there may just be an exception to the rule.

Scientific claims

The EM Drive, in theory, converts energy into thrust without emitting any sort of exhaust — bypassing the need for mass to be expelled in one direction in order to propel the rocket in the other.

Ever since its emergence in 2001, under Roger J. Shawyer of the small UK company known as Satellite Propulsion Research, the science behind this technology has been met with skepticism. Yet, in 2010, parallel developments in this area of were undertaken in China, where Professor Juan Yang reported the potential for electromagnetic propulsion to produce thrust in space without requiring combustion.

In early 2014, Dr. Harold White of NASA picked up on similar research and presented the idea at the Joint Propulsion Conference, explaining how propulsion was produced by magnetic fields in what is called a magnetohydrodynamic drive.

Photograph by Satellite Propulsion Research

Until now, no country had tested this technological phenomenon in a vacuum yet, despite it being the very environment in which it was claimed to function. Finally, this April, NASA tested the EM Drive in a vacuum and was able to produce thrust, confirming some of the claims about its potential.

The recent test also nullified some hypotheses which had suggested that thrust came from some minute form of heat convection — wherein a transfer of fluid or gas accompanies a transmission of heat as seen in the emission of fuel exhaust from modern day rockets.

With no stowaway fluids or gases causing accidental propulsion during the experiment, the science behind the EM drive has once again become a topic of debate. The technology appears to function as described, but remains without a clear explanation.

NASA’s EM drive may just be a piece of technology that truly accomplishes the impossible, however small the scale.

Widespread skepticism

Despite all the excitement surrounding electromagnetic propulsion, the scientific community continues to deny its feasibility.

If the EM drive were to work as described, it would go against two of the most fundamental universal laws of physics: the conservation of energy, which states that you cannot create energy out of nothing, and the conservation of momentum, which states that any movement requires an equal and opposite movement to exist.

“It’s like saying you could get your car moving by sitting inside and pushing on the steering wheel” says Sean Carroll, physicist and cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology.

He adds that “the strongest bias we have is to believe things that we want to think are true”, highlighting the reason behind the countless EM drive rumours found both on the internet and in media.

In May, NASA officials confirmed Carroll’s words of caution, stating that “while conceptual research into novel propulsion methods by a team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has created headlines, this is a small effort that has not yet shown any tangible results”.

Photograph by Satellite Propulsion Research

An important part of the uncertainty surrounding the experiments is that its measurements do not seem to be easily repeatable. When the drive creates propulsion, there is a flurry of thermal activity as metals expand and temperature varies, making results unpredictable and insignificant when compared to potential margin of error.

Before this technology is really considered a breakthrough, space agencies not only need to show evidence of repeatable measurements, but also need to demonstrate that it can be done at a much larger scale.

The future of space travel

If it were to be developed successfully, the EM Drive would not be powerful enough to enable travel at the speed of light, nor would it create a wormhole or bend space-time — at least not in any way that is currently proven.

However, the relationship between the EM Drive’s propulsion and quantum mechanics does indeed suggest that this technology could be groundbreaking not only in its use, but also in encouraging a new realm of knowledge for scientific study.

The bottom line is that the EM Drive is a curiosity which inspires both hope and skepticism as the scientific community eyes it with a “too good to be true” attitude, but still plans to continue pursuing the possibility of a new revolution in space travel.

Although many may regard this as an opportunity to begin our inevitable path towards Star Trek, there is still a long way to go.

Space Debris

Earth surrounded by millions of satellites and scraps

With more and more space debris, how can we achieve sustainability?

May 19th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by NASA

Sustainability is a fast-growing theme in our society, and one that will be of increasing importance as more and more humans venture into space.

Many headlines have highlighted the alarming accumulation of trash in our oceans, while societies far and wide fail to keep up with the cleaning of litter in cities and along highways. Considering all that we have discarded over the last few decades — plastics, metals, and other solid waste — the emptiness of space may strike one as pristine and untouched. Yet, wherever humanity goes, so waste follows.

A dangerous situation

NASA estimates that there are over 500,000 pieces of debris orbiting the Earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) claims that this rises into the millions when the smallest pieces are counted, but says that perhaps 29,000 of these are larger than 10 centimeters. Many of the smaller pieces of debris have already been re-entering the atmosphere at a rate of one per day, according to NASA.

Beyond simple debris, there are also over 2,500 satellites in orbit that are no longer being used, but are essentially husks of metal and circuitry with nowhere else to go.

Graphic by the European Space Agency (ESA)

Our planet’s gravitational pull keeps all of this debris strongly in orbit, and to push it further out would be a hefty endeavour.

Whilst the current amount of debris has already caused some issues — such as the International Space Station moving to avoid a deactivated Russian spacecraft, or the collision of two satellites in 2009 — it is worrisome to consider the future risk of this state of affairs. The Kessler syndrome, named for NASA employee Donald Kessler, was conceived as far back as 1978 to describe a dilemma where debris is so ubiquitous that it complicates or even prevents launching missions into space from Earth.

The accumulation of space debris is certainly an unsustainable practice. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office is an example of our efforts to mitigate and understand the risks associated with increased space debris, but it still remains unclear if there are any real solutions to the problem.

Proposed solutions

There have been promising developments, however, best seen in cooperative ventures between the United States government and several private companies and organisations. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is associated with the Department of Defense, has launched the second phase of what it calls the Phoenix Project — a program that will use robotic spacecrafts to salvage parts from decommissioned satellites. In 2014, DARPA awarded contracts to eight private companies who will collaborate with the project.

Meanwhile, there has been innovative speculation on how to recycle spent fuel capsules, known as external tanks (ETs).

The Space Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group committed to encouraging human presence in space through government and private sector cooperation, has been championing an idea to recycle these capsules into storage spaces and even inhabitable structures. The foundation suggests that each tank is equivalent to an eleven-story building, and collecting several of them presents the opportunity to form a space station that competes with NASA’s space station Alpha as well as the joint American-Russian ISS.

There is even the suggestion of a “wet launch”, where the capsule would be outfitted with basic inhabitable architecture before being filled with fuel, leaving it empty but ready for use once discarded in orbit. Alternatively, these tanks could be melted down for reuse after recovering their leftover hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen reserves — over a metric ton of useful substances.

Graphic by the European Space Agency (ESA)

NASA has indicated that its capsules are free to be reclaimed by any organisation that has the means to collect and secure them. This places what is currently debris into a new category, effectively rebranding them as a commodity. These capsules could become space stations, greenhouses, or even industrial raw material. A hypothetical moon base, also advocated by the Space Frontier Foundation, could rely on these as primary structures, much in the way that shipping containers are employed in austere locales by the US military.

Smaller debris, however, are much less of a commodity. To be effectively collected, they would have to be gathered into a large clump by such potential machines as Switzerland’s CleanSpace One. In large groups, they could be used as a shield against radiation, or be melted down and shaped into something new.

Future outlook

In coming years, practicing sustainability in space will be crucial.

For governments, sustainability could mean lower costs of operation, improved safety of manned missions, and yet a growing need to develop difficult-to-enforce regulations. For private organisations, there may be more need to practice corporate sustainability alongside an attractive opportunity to profit from repurposing much of the debris.

In the long-term, it will remain important that human activity in space serves to benefit the population and environment of the planet, and that through sustainable practice we avoid becoming a danger to ourselves while already braving the many inherent dangers of space travel.