Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Bread And Circuses


No, I am not one of those who begrudge rich people their pleasures and pursuits. Content in my own life, I harbour no ill-will toward those who are better off than me.

I do become bothered, however, when those pursuits both distract us from, and add to, the existential crises our world faces. In that, the billionaires have much to answer for.

Take the recent 'groundbreaking' flights of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos into near-space and the breathless reporting that followed it.

Start at the 9:40 mark of the following to catch Stephanie Ruhle's  breathless, (star struck?) interview with the Bezos boys:

Similar gushing interlocutions can be found online following Branson's Virgin Galactic foray, but I hope the above serves to illustrate that this kind of gushing, lionizing coverage serves merely as a bread-and-circuses diversion away from the many problems we face in our terrestrial sphere.

Now, were you to watch earlier in this broadcast, you would hear how Bezos also talks about seeing our planet from above and how fragile it really is. He opines we must do everything we can to protect our world, as if  his space trip offered a transcendent experience.

And Branson, after his trip, said he wants to spend the rest of his life helping to solve our many problems here.

Apparently, those problems do not include our biggest threat, climate change.

Despite these intrepid innovators' claim that the greenhouse gas emissions from their excursions are no different from those from a jet flight, the truth is otherwise. First of all, both of their business models call for more and more of these inner-space trips, and as they scale up, the price will come down, making them more accessible to more people. Hence, more trips, more greenhouse gas emissions.

Secondly, the nature of these emissions is different from jet trips. Katherine Gammon explains:

Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London... studies the impact of fuels and industries on the atmosphere.

The carbon emissions from rockets are small compared with the aircraft industry, she says. But they are increasing at nearly 5.6% a year, and Marais has been running a simulation for a decade, to figure out at what point will they compete with traditional sources we are familiar with.

“For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide [per passenger],” says Marais. For one rocket launch it’s 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide carrying 4 or so passengers – close on two orders of magnitude more, according to Marais. “So it doesn’t need to grow that much more to compete with other sources.”

But the problem is more than simply the amount of carbon spewed, because 

emissions from rockets are emitted right into the upper atmosphere, which means they stay there for a long time: two to three years. Even water injected into the upper atmosphere – where it can form clouds – can have warming impacts, says Marais. “Even something as seemingly innocuous as water can have an impact.”

Closer to the ground, all fuels emit huge amounts of heat, which can add ozone to the troposphere, where it acts like a greenhouse gas and retains heat. In addition to carbon dioxide, fuels like kerosene and methane also produce soot. And in the upper atmosphere, the ozone layer can be destroyed by the combination of elements from burning fuels.

When I was a boy, I imagined a future of endless possibilities. Each liftoff of the Mercury and Apollo missions served only to whet that imagination. But I grew up and saw an increasingly fractured world with no simple remedies. 

Perhaps it is now time for these 'boys of space' to do a bit of growing up as well.



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