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

US Elections 2016

Donald Trump elected President of the United States

The pitiful state of American politics and society

November 12th 2016 | Wisconsin | Xavier Ward & Bartu Kaleagasi

Photograph by CNN

In the early morning hours of November 9th, Donald Trump secured the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.

You might ask yourself – how is this possible? How did a candidate who was widely regarded as a dangerous joke by the media, the establishment, and even among his own party members, clinch the highest office in the country?

Previously, we analysed Bernie Sanders’s progressive movement, the Republican party’s disastrous agenda, the Bernie or Bust dilemma, and Hillary Clinton’s deeply flawed candidacy. Now, we turn our attention to the reality of this result and its unsettling consequences.


Make America Great… Again?

When this country was founded, it was founded on the basis of freedom and equality for all. That idea is what made America “great”.

Yet, at that time, black Americans were kept as property, and women were seen as second-class citizens. America was not great, and America still is not great. The ideas espoused by the American constitution are valuable, but the nation itself still has a lot progress to make in the 21st century.

Photograph from Obergefell v. Hodges

Depending on your race, social class, and identity, there’s a good chance America is a place where you live in constant fear of being harassed, assaulted, and even killed.

Now, being faced with the results of the election, there’s a fear amongst these groups of marginalized Americans that their very livelihood is in danger. That fear is legitimate.

Donald Trump, a reality television star, real estate mogul and President-elect, paints a picture of America in which we see our friends and loved ones being hurt just because of their background or identity. Make no mistake, he doesn’t care about you or anyone else.


A Democratic failure

Trump’s opponent in the race, Hillary Clinton, was the biggest mistake in Democratic history.

When the Democratic National Committee (DNC) colluded with Clinton to manipulate the primaries against a widely supported progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders, it became instantly clear that this would lead to an inevitable Trump presidency.

Sanders’s supporters were already suspicious of her anti-democratic behaviour during primary season, but when Wikileaks released dozens of DNC e-mails in support of those claims, it was the last nail in the coffin. As a result of this monumental mistake, dangerous populism triumphed over corrupt liberalism.

Another dimension to the Democratic party’s failure is that they backed an establishment candidate during an election cycle where anti-establishment politics were spectacularly popular.

Hillary Clinton is a lifelong politician who personifies the epitome of American establishment politics. She speaks loudly and carries a small stick, so to say. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “she’s never met a foreign donor she doesn’t like”. The public distrusted Clinton from the very beginning for her past decision-making, both as Secretary of State and Senator.

Photograph by Bloomberg

In fact, Bernie Sanders issued this exact warning in August 2015, when he addressed the Democratic party and told them that her campaign could not possibly win the election:

“Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.

With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful. The people of our country understand that — given the collapse of the American middle class and the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing — we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.

We need a political movement which is prepared to take on the billionaire class and create a government which represents all Americans, and not just corporate America and wealthy campaign donors. In other words, we need a movement which takes on the economic and political establishment, not one which is part of it.”

Although it may also reflect a general distrust for politicians, mostly because people are told they have many reasons to be angry, Hillary Clinton’s criticisms are not illegitimate.

However, when given the choice between a Clinton or Trump presidency, there is no doubt that she was the correct choice, or at the least the most acceptable choice to the reasonable voter.


The pitiful state of America

This election is telling of the state of the American mindset.

In the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, police violence, and islamophobia, half the country managed to believe that Trump wasn’t merely touting those issues as speaking points to get elected. We were wrong, and we will have to live with that decision for the rest of our days.

What Trump did was mobilize a group of non-voters. Americans who felt so far separated from politics that they would vote for any candidate who represents radical change. Trump’s running mate and Vice President to be, Mike Pence, the gay-bashing theocrat and friend of the Falwells, is really the cherry on top. In fact, he supports such a backwards agenda, that he and his wife have even funded gay conversion therapy.

Photograph by Michael Henninger

Considering that when John Kasich met with Eric Trump, Eric assured him that the Vice President would be making all real policy decisions, Pence will likely be the puppeteer pulling the strings. When Kasich asked what Donald Trump’s role would be, he simply replied “making America great again”.

Trump’s supporters, mostly uneducated white people, were energized by his charisma, can-do attitude, and general disregard for the rules. “He speaks his mind,” says the Trump supporter. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not his raucous incoherence is based in fact or fiction. It also does not matter whether or not Trump has foreign policy experience, whether he understands the intricacies of macroeconomics, or even if he’ll actually fight for them.

They simply heard an echo of their own bigotry. An echo chamber of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are inherently better, while ignoring any of our own faults.

With Trump comes an era where the truth literally does not matter anymore. Facts don’t matter. Science doesn’t matter. Rhetoric rules supreme.


Toxic consequences

The most immediate effects of a Trump presidency, coupled with an entirely Republican-held Congress, will be the complete unravelling of President Obama’s progressive policies, to be replaced with the GOP’s toxic agenda.

Republicans now effectively control all three branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary). What can we expect from them?

Environment: support for fossil fuels, legislation against renewable subsidies, and rejection of the Paris climate change agreement – leading to faster environmental destruction than ever before.

Supreme Court: with a vacant seat already left from Republican obstructionism against Obama’s nomination, Donald Trump could potentially appoint 2-3 new conservative justices – leading to the overruling of many important principles like gay marriage.

Economy and society: regressive policies against almost everyone in society, including the repeal of Obamacare – leading to continued rapid decline of the middle class.

Geopolitics: Trump’s unusual cooperation with Russia and scepticism towards NATO is likely to destabilise the western alliance and endanger the future of peace and defence in Europe, especially on the Eastern front.

Photograph by Les Stone

Perhaps what matters even more is that Trump’s hateful ideology has now received national recognition, it has been given a voice on the highest of podiums. This sort of bigotry is what first shocked people about Trump, but no one took it seriously until it was too late, and soon it will be represented by the White House itself.

Even Trump’s braggadocious remarks of sexually assaulting women were not enough to unseat him. This is who we have elected, a man who brags of assaulting women and gets away with it. It was written off as “locker room banter”, but really it is an absolute slap in the face to the millions of survivors of sexual violence in our country.

Since the announcement of his candidacy and the publication of his views, we’ve seen an unfortunate rise in hate crime. Videos have emerged showing Confederate flag-flying Americans berating immigrants and minorities with racial slurs and threats of violence. Muslims being beaten and harassed in a country which holds freedom of religion as one of its most fundamental tenants. This is a farce.


Progress is the future

We’ve seen the danger of allowing hateful rhetoric to rule a country’s policy-making. Open a history book and you’ll find a litany of regimes which were all birthed from a single idea: “make this country greater than the rest”.

We need to examine what a “great” country actually is. Trump does not want greatness for America, he wants dominance, and he wants to be at the head of this movement.

A “great” America under Trump is a global hegemon who rules with an iron fist. It is a fearless leader who charges head-first into battle and emerges victorious, regardless of the cost. This is an image out of a tall tale, this is not the reality of the world we live in.

For a country to be great it does not need to be a domineering world power, but rather a global team player that values the lives of all and actively tries to make the world safer for everyone. The race to be the number one world super power is a dangerous and frightful game, and what goes up must come down.

In the face of adversity, Americans have only one option: to unify and hold one another up. Donald Trump will not make this country great, but its people can.

Catalan Independence

Catalonia declares itself a sovereign state

The past and future of Spain’s north-eastern separatism

January 17th 2016 | Barcelona | Martin Rogard

Photograph by AFP

In recent months, the possibility of an independent Catalan Republic has been rapidly materialising.

The election of a separatist coalition by a slim 51.7% majority on September 27th was shortly followed by the passing of a resolution on October 27th, by the regional parliament, which declared “Un Estat Català Independent”, essentially declaring Catalonia a sovereign state. Growing political salience for independence has pushed political parties to form a majority coalition in the regional parliament called Junts pel Sí, or ‘Together for Yes’, which now claims it has the electoral mandate for secession.

However, although separatists won a majority of seats, they did not receive a majority of the popular vote. Due to the way constituencies are divided, just under half of the electorate actually voted for the pro-independence coalition.


Spanish reaction

In light of these developments, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy maintains that “Catalonia is not going anywhere, nothing is going to break”.

In fact, the independence resolution was immediately followed by an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish Council of Ministers, which approved an appeal to the Constitutional Court for the nullification of Catalonia’s parliamentary ruling.

In its report, the advisory body suggested that “there is sufficient legal basis” to challenge the claim before the Constitutional Court since it “disregards the core of the Spanish Constitution by declaring disobedience to the sovereign Spanish state”. Whilst such quarrel between regional Catalan and federal institutions has not been infrequent in the past, the pressure for independence has been rapidly escalating in the midst of national elections.

Diagram by The Economist

This rising tension is difficult to ignore when walking the eclectic streets of Barcelona. A couple of days ago, a middle-aged man who was standing with a separatist flag in front of the Town hall told me that an independent Catalonia had been the dreams of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but that it would now be him, his children and grandchildren who would finally see it happen.

In his mind, the current “oppressive” and “corrupt” Spanish Monarchy is fighting the same losing battle as the Spanish Empire had with its former colonies. “We, Catalans, are no different than Columbians or Cubans” alliterated the interviewee


Historical roots

When did this zeal for separatism actually begin? And why?

Well, the Catalan separatist movement can be traced back to the creation of the Estat Català revolutionary movement in 1922. Historically, Catalonia has always been a notorious critic of unitary and monarchical power, advocating for greater regional autonomy and a Republican nation-state.

When a Second Spanish Republic was attempted in 1931, the independence movement died down with the creation of the self-administrative ‘Generalitat de Cataluña’, still under Spanish authority, but enjoying unprecedented levels of self-rule. In fact, when the Civil War erupted, following Franco’s coup in July 1936, Catalonia was actually one of the strongholds in defense of the Spanish state.

As described by George Orwell, who fought in Barcelona, the ‘Generalitat’ in 1937 was a place of “no boss-class, no menial class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers and no priests”.

Photograph by AFP

Today, Catalonia remains disconnected with some of the most traditional Spanish values in its commitment to progressive politics. Such cultural differences are mirrored in their use of the ‘Catalan’ as the official regional language, instead of Spain’s ‘Castellano’.

Having won the conflict, Franco immediately reinforced national unity, thus curtailing the region’s autonomy. Under the dictatorship, separatist movements were silenced, but Catalonia remained tacitly critical.

In 1975, after Franco’s death, the proclamation of a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic sparked a revival of the independence movement, which continues to this day.


Economic considerations

Recently, ‘Junts Pel Si ’ has been arguing for independence so that Catalonia is no longer required to provide funding for other regions as part of the fiscal redistributive policies imposed by the Spanish government.

In keeping all tax revenues to itself, the Generalitat would enjoy a larger budget for infrastructure, education, and healthcare, estimated between 5% and 9% of GDP. As such, the past seven years of fiscal austerity have intensified the population’s eagerness to secede, demanding a different recipe for economic growth.

On the other hand, being a part of Spain allows it to export local products such as its ‘Cava’, a form of sparkling wine, anywhere in Spain and in the EU. Catalonia greatly benefits from Spain’s membership to the European Union, which offers low export costs, consistent tourism, and infrastructure funding to the region.

Photograph by David Ramos

As a result, the economic argument for independence is entirely dependent on Catalonia’s ability to negotiate favourable relations with the Spanish state and the EU on a bilateral basis if it becomes a sovereign state.

Such issues are reminiscent of similar conflicts in Scotland, which faced many of the same debates over the last few years. Indeed, while EU accession laws may grant temporary membership to a seceding territory, any new member must be unanimously vetted by all member states, including Spain, which puts separatists in an awkward bargaining position.


Corruption and democracy

Beside the long-term explanations for Catalan independence, it appears that the recent escalation in separatism has been catalysed by an ongoing democratic crisis in Spain, and Europe in a wider context.

Indeed, for the past ten years, the Spanish political landscape has been plagued with corruption scandals of illicit party funding, such as the infamous ‘Bárcenas affair’, tax evasion scandals, and abuses of executive legal immunity provisions. The Monarchy has also been engulfed by scandals as Spain’s former King Juan Carlos I engaged in elephant hunting in Botswana, as well as the ‘Urdangarín affair’, which found him accused of embezzling large sums of public money.

If the general lack of transparency, rule of law and accountability of public officials has resulted in great dissatisfaction for the general electorate, this has been exacerbated even further for Catalans.

Photograph by Paul Hanna

This democratic crisis can be statistically illustrated by a Transparency International report, which found that 74% Spaniards felt that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective. An even higher percentage of people felt that from 2007-2010, the level of corruption in the country had actually increased.

According to the independent NGO, the most corrupt institution in Spain are the political parties. The mistrust of established political parties has created an electoral vacuum in Spain, which rapidly gave rise to newer parties such as the socialist and anti-austerity Podemos, and the mostly neo-liberal Ciudadanos.

Both parties call for profound political reform, and stand to the respective political left and right of the two largest parties, PSOE and PP.


Un Estat Catala independent?

The rise of new parties, coupled with general mistrust of institutions in Spain, have produced largely fragmented results in the national elections held in December 2015, crippling the ability of any party to form a coalition government.

In fact, many in Spain now believe there will a re-run of the elections, and a large portion of the electorate seems to be calling for political change.

In Catalonia, this surely means the independence movement will continue pushing forward until serious political reform is achieved.

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.

Russia and Crimean Tatars

Russia shuts down opposition in the new Crimea

The hardships of an ethnic minority facing an uncertain future in their homeland

April 15th 2015 | Netherlands | Melih Uzun

Photograph by Max Vetrov

“This blatant attack on freedom of expression, dressed-up as an administrative procedure, is a crude attempt to stifle independent media, gag dissenting voices, and intimidate the Crimean Tatar community.”

Those were the words used by Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, to state his concern for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars – and compliance with their rights and liberties – as Russian authorities abruptly shut down their media outlets.

The formal annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, with the signing of a treaty between Crimea and Russia at the Kremlin on March 18th, sparked global controversy in 2014. NATO, as well as numerous prominent world leaders, condemned Russia for their conduct during the conflict that was dubbed the ‘Crimean Crisis’. Besides their disputed unconstitutional referendum, which was held to manifest Crimea’s supposed desire to join the Federation, the Russians also used persistent military intervention in order to seize control over the Ukrainian territory.


Tatar media shutdown

Crimean Tatars, now subjected to Russian legislature, have no choice but to comply to Russia’s demands that media outlets in the region must obtain a new broadcasting license. Whilst Russian-speaking media channels met the requirements with ease, newspapers and TV channels that broadcast in Crimean – a Turkic language spoken by the Tatars – were denied their permits and forced to shut down their services.

Only a single Crimean Tatar medium, the newspaper Yeni Dünya, successfully applied for their broadcasting permit. All other Tatar media have been indiscriminately rejected by the Russian authorities, often without a specified reason. In some cases, applicants were turned down multiple times or even plainly ignored. Such was the case with Crimean Tatar-language television channel ATR. Their efforts of registering under Russian legislation were arbitrarily denied three times, whereas their fourth application did not even earn a response.

“They can shut down the channel, but they can never curb the desire of the Crimean Tatar nation for truth and freedom” declared Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Twitter, strongly condemning the move against ATR.

Photograph by Vasily Fedosenko

Lilya Budzhurova, ATR’s Deputy Director for Information Policy, stated that the channel had no choice but to pull the plug. “We will be prosecuted according to Russian law. There could be severe consequences, including hefty fines of up to half-a-billion roubles (approximately $9,000), confiscation of equipment, and criminal charges against the management.”

And, just like that, an entire community was rendered speechless. By essentially turning Crimean Tatar journalism into a criminal offense, Russia is depriving this ethnic minority of their freedom of expression, and possibly much more. This is not the first time Amnesty International raised concerns for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars. In May 2014, shortly after the Crimean peninsula was annexed, they had already predicted that the community would be at the risk of persecution and harassment under Russian rule. “Despite assurances made by the de facto Crimean authorities to protect the rights of Tatars, since the annexation of the peninsula by Russia in March this year, the Tatar community has faced increasing violence and discrimination” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.

“The Russian authorities have allowed armed groups that have been behind some brutal attacks against the Tatars to operate freely in Crimea” he adds. “They have alienated Crimean Tatars by harassing Tatar leaders, threatening to dissolve their highest representative body, and restricting their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.”

Furthermore, Dalhuisen states that Crimean Tatars are being pressured into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship in order to be granted a Russian one, with the only alternative to be doomed as stateless ‘foreigners’ in their own homeland. This unenviable scenario has already pushed thousands of Tatars to flee Crimea, as their outlook at home is far from reassuring.


Geopolitics of the past and future

Given the history of the two nations in conflict, these concerns are certainly not out of place.

During the Second World War, Stalin commanded atrocious acts of ethnic cleansing against Crimean Tatars, forcefully deporting their entire population – nearly a quarter million at the time – to remote parts of the Soviet Union such as the Uzbek SSR. During the journey, almost half of them died from starvation and disease, and it was not until 1989, during Perestroika, that the Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland.

Nowadays, after decades of oppression from Soviets and Russians, only one tenth of the original population remains.

Only time will tell how the future of Crimean Tatars unfolds, but the political setting in Russia provides a valid reason to remain sceptical.

United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin, is as conservative as it is statist, and embodies a whopping 238 out of the 450 seats of Russia’s State Duma. This represents a vast amount power, one which is not expected to fade anytime soon.

Astrobiology

Alien life on Europa, Enceladus, & Ganymede

The search for extraterrestrial organisms on Jupiter and Saturn’s moons

March 24th 2015 | London | Bartu Kaleagasi

Photograph by NASA

“Life is not a miracle. It is a natural phenomenon, and can be expected to appear whenever there is a planet whose conditions duplicate those of the Earth.”

Such were the words of Harold Urey, physical chemist famed for his contributions to our understanding of organic matter. Indeed, ever since humanity’s search for extraterrestrial organisms began, we have found thousands of planets which may have the right criteria to support life, and astronomers predict that there are several billion planets situated in their circumstellar habitable zone –  also known as the ‘Goldilocks Zone’.

Although many have heard of the Drake Equation, a formula estimating the number of intelligent civilisations currently alive in the universe, the more relevant measure in our endeavour to find alien life is the Earth Similarity Index (ESI). This scale, which takes into account several factors including radius, density, escape velocity, and surface temperature, seeks to quantify how similar any given planet or moon’s physical characteristics are to our Earth. Whilst some exoplanets have ranked remarkably high, such as Kepler-438b with an ESI of 0.89 out of 1.00, and Gliese 667 Cc with an ESI of 0.84, most of these are several hundred light years away – well out of our reach for modern technological standards.

What about inside our very own solar system? Well, there are three candidates which have been regarded as serious prospects for extraterrestrial life in recent years: Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. In fact, just last month, NASA announced the exciting news that it had requested $255 million in funding for an exploration mission to Europa. However, according to the ESI, none of these moons rank any higher than 0.3 on the scale; so why are they deemed to hold such potential for life? The answer lies in oceans, geysers, and hydrothermal vents.


Europa

Out of all the factors it takes for a planet to support life, the presence of liquid water has always been considered one of the most vital. Many will remember the discovery of water on Mars, which suggested much about the red planet’s distant past. Although many alternative theories propose that other biochemical environments, such as the methane lakes found on Saturn’s moon Titan, could also hold the necessary hydrocarbons to harbour living organisms, our only real precedent for life is what we observe right here on Earth.

According to latest research, under its thick icy crust, Europa is likely to have a vast sub-surface ocean which is kept in liquid form due to tidal heating from Jupiter. Based on information from NASA’s Galileo satellite, it contains up to 3 times as much water as found on Earth, even despite Europa’s smaller overall size.

“Europa’s ocean, to the best of our knowledge, isn’t that harsh of an environment” says astrobiologist Kevin Hand. Indeed, although its ocean could be as deep as 100km, living organisms have been found in places with equally difficult conditions on Earth, such as the famous Mariana Trench. Unlike the outdated view that photosynthesis from sunlight is an essential component of life, scientists have recently concluded that microbial life can survive via chemosynthesis by processing chemicals from hydrothermal vents.

Photograph by NASA

“Europa is a very challenging mission operating in a really high radiation environment, and there’s lots to do to prepare for it” said Beth Robinson, NASA’s chief financial officer. The exploration mission, named Europa Clipper, is set to be launched in the mid 2020s. It will seek to observe the moon’s topography, examine the thickness of its ice crust, and analyse the sub-surface ocean’s ability to sustain life. If NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is finished on time, it will allow Europa Clipper to be sent from Earth to Jupiter in only 3 years rather than the conventional travel time of 8 years.

Perhaps the most unconventional opportunity to obtain a sample from Europa’s ocean will come from its water-rich geysers which can reach 200km in height – twice as high as Earth’s atmosphere. If NASA is able to plan Europa Clipper’s orbital trajectory in a way that allows it to pass by the moon’s southern pole, it could fly directly through a jet of water vapour, collecting water particles and thus avoiding the difficult task of having to land on Europa’s surface altogether.


Enceladus

Saturn’s sixth-largest moon was recently found to be one of the most promising places for life in our solar system outside of Earth, perhaps even surpassing Europa in its prospects for habitability.

In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft found plumes of water vapour emanating from Enceladus’s southern pole, reaching heights of 200km, just like those observed on Europa. In 2014, it discovered the existence of a warm sub-surface ocean with an estimated depth of only 10km. Now, in 2015, astrophysicists working on the Cassini mission have just announced that they detected ongoing hydrothermal activity in Enceladus’s ocean – the first of its kind ever to be found besides Earth.

Surprisingly, the scientists behind this discovery explained that they collected this data not by examining Enceladus itself, but by observing the dust found in Saturn’s majestic rings. “We’ve known from quite early on that Enceladus was the source of the material in Saturn’s outermost ring […] based on the ring’s composition” said Sean Hsu, researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Using Cassini’s mass spectrometer, they were able to identify a type of silicon particle which, as far as we know, can only be formed by hydrothermal vents.

Photograph by NASA

According to Andrew Coates, Head of Planetary Science at UCL,  the vital chemistry for life involves carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulphur. Evidence suggests that Enceladus’s ocean contains many of these, with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane having already been identified. This leaves little doubt that the moon could harbour microbial organisms, and maybe even small aquatic animals.

However, unlike Earth’s hydrothermal vents which are fuelled by the planet’s hot core, Enceladus’s warmth is a result of tidal heating from Saturn, just like that which is observed on Europa. What this means is that Enceladus may not have had the same timeframe of hydrothermal activity as seen on Earth. As we know, life takes millions of years to form, and so it is unclear whether Saturn’s moon would have had enough time to develop and sustain its own organisms. Nonetheless, with an ocean holding about as much water as Lake Superior, Enceladus’s small size makes it a truly exciting place to explore.

Jonathan Lunine, planetary scientist from Cornell University, is currently drafting a proposal to update the Cassini mission by sending a new spacecraft to Saturn with better technology and tools designed specifically to find any signs of life. “If we go back to Enceladus and build upon the Cassini results with the instruments of today, the short answer is, we know that we’ll be able to look for life frozen in the geyser particles, and really nail this habitability question”.


Ganymede

“The solar system is now looking like a pretty soggy place” says Jim Green of NASA. In breaking news last week, Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede was also found to have a sub-surface ocean, putting it up on the same ranks as Europa and Enceladus.

These findings came about from observations of the moon’s aurora, which are the equivalent of the Northern Lights phenomenon seen here on Earth. Having noticed an unusually low shift in the aurora’s magnetic interactions with Jupiter, Joachim Saur, along with his colleagues from the University of Cologne, found that this was the result of Ganymede’s saltwater ocean which was acting as a separate magnetic source. Just like Europa, Ganymede’s ocean is also predicted to be around 100km in depth. Evidence suggesting the existence of a sub-surface ocean had been spotted in 2002 by NASA’s Galileo probe, but the data was not yet conclusive at the time.

Ganymede-moon

Photograph by NASA

Despite being a moon, Ganymede is around 5,268 kilometers across, making it only 30% smaller than Mars. In fact, if it had formed around the sun instead of Jupiter, it would be massive enough to be classified as a planet. Whether or not life exists on Ganymede will have to be examined in the next decade, but, just like Europa and Enceladus, its potential for habitability is substantial. “Every observation we make takes us one step closer to finding a truly habitable environment” says Heidi Hammel, planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to send a specialised probe to examine Jupiter’s moons in 2022, the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer – also known as JUICE. It aims to collect data from Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto, with emphasis on determining whether or not extraterrestrial organisms could thrive in their respective environments. The mission would take over 8 years and enter Ganymede’s orbit around 2033.


The meaning of life

Whilst many of these exploration projects may seem to be decades away from finding alien life, their importance cannot be overstated. Discovering living organisms outside of Earth would be the single most revolutionary event in the history of mankind.

From a scientific viewpoint, it would allow us to observe life which is completely unfamiliar to us here on Earth, giving immense insight into the possibility of survival in alternative biochemistries. So far, astrobiologists have conventionally assumed that Earth-like conditions, as reflected by the ESI, are the most likely to harbour life. This view could soon be completely overhauled and replaced by a more flexible outlook in our future search for extraterrestrials.

More importantly, the philosophical significance of such a discovery would be immeasurable. Many of our religions, politics, and theories about the meaning of life are based on the assumption that we are alone in this vast universe. Detecting alien organisms within our very own solar system would dramatically change the underpinning structure of our philosophy and directly challenge the teachings of major faiths around the world. As an Epicurean like myself would say, it would prove that we humans are neither special, nor divinely entitled to the nature of our planet that we so often take for granted.

All we can do for now is be patient and wait for the day that every newspaper will print the historic headline “Scientists find alien life”. With many exploration missions in their planning phase this decade, several of which are ready to launch in the 2020s, that day may just come sooner than we all expect.