There is no Planet B

Jacob White
Age of Awareness
Published in
6 min readMar 1, 2021

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It’s time to take the climate crisis seriously and lead by example.

I am an astrophysicist. In short, my job is to attempt to understand the universe. Specifically, I research star and planet formation. The ultimate goal is to gain a better sense of how unique our Solar System and our planet actually is.

Photo of the earth taken by the Suomi NPP satellite. Image credit: NASA.

Speaking of planets, we’ve observed thousands of them outside our Solar System. These “exoplanets” come in all sizes — some of them are even Earth-like. At first this can spark hope. Could we pack our bags and head off to Earth 2.0? Well… unfortunately, space is big. Like really really big.

The closest star to our Solar system is Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years away. The fastest spacecraft every launched is the Parker Solar Probe, which reached a speed of 430,000 mph (690,000 kph). Even this speed demon would take about 6,500 years to arrive at our neighboring star system. Therefore, it isn’t possible to travel to planets outside of our Solar system within our lifetimes (or maybe ever).

Now let’s think local. We’ve studied our planetary neighbors in great detail. Take Venus for example, the second planet from the Sun. It’s very similar in size to Earth. If we saw it around a different star, we may even think it is a “Habitable Earth-like twin”. But, it has a runaway greenhouse effect making it too hot.

Surface map reconstruction of Venus. Image credit NASA/JPL.

Venus should be of a similar temperature to Earth, but it is MUCH hotter. It’s even hotter than Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. And this is all because there’s too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in its atmosphere. CO2, a greenhouse gas, can raise the average temperature of a planet. So what if the Earth becomes uninhabitable through the impacts of climate change? There is no backup plan.
There is no “Planet B”.

The Biden administration wants the United States to be a leader in combating the climate crisis. But we can’t sit back and wait for someone else to fix climate change. We — the citizens, businesses, and organizations of the planet — must also become climate leaders. We must make sustainability a priority in our daily lives. And we must do it now.

The Paris Climate Accord set the goal of curbing global warming to +1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Let’s do the math.

  • The amount of carbon emissions that would warm the Earth to that level is about 500 billion tons
  • The world’s population is about 7.7 billion people.
  • We have a goal of reaching net neutral emissions by 2050.

This means each person on the planet has a “budget” of 2–3 tons of CO2 emissions per year. And those levels of emission only yield a 50–50 chance of not passing this warming mark. (I promise that’s all the math I’m going to do here 😄).

But what does that mean?

If you spend more money than you have, you go into debt. We all know that. That’s why we create budgets, to keep track of how much money we can spend. To minimize the negative impacts of climate change as much as possible, we have to keep within our planet’s carbon budget. If we don’t, we’re going into debt to our future selves.

Representation of the carbon budget adapted from Global Carbon Project.

The time to act is now. Not tomorrow. Not after the pandemic subsides. Not after the Sun becomes a red giant (we have a few billion years to worry about that last one). More importantly, we must be the change we want to see. We know how to fix this problem, so we must fix it. We must lead by example. If we demand someone else do something and don’t change our own actions, it’s hypocritical.

What can be done?

What can I do? What can my employer do? What can my school/institution/insert-other-organization-here do? Well, barring some technological breakthrough, we all need to make prioritize sustainable practices in our daily lives.

On the individual level, we must start making changes such as: eating less meat, taking public transit more frequently, and properly managing the temperature in our homes. These may seem small — but they add up. Your actions may seem inconsequential, but just like a galaxy is a collection of stars our global society is just a collection of individual actions. Check out this quick guide for 10 things you can do right now to reduce your carbon footprint.

As individuals, we need to take an honest assessment of our carbon footprint and start taking actions to reduce it. You don’t have to pack it all up and go live off the grid in a cabin woods (well you can if you want to). But if you eat 5 steaks everyday and are constantly taking long haul flights, then it your carbon footprint is significantly higher than your fair share. That’s not sustainable, and you need to figure out ways to cut back.

Photo by Alena Koval from Pexels.

On the organizational level, we must adopt sustainability as a core goal. This means making decisions based on adhering to that goal. For example, consider an organization/company that doesn’t produce a physical product. They may naively think this means they don’t produce carbon emissions either. But if they are relying on significant computational resources, travel, or even operating telescopes — then their carbon footprint can start to really add up.

Your company or organization can, and should, have a sustainability committee. This is a group that best identifies ways to make meaningful change and educates the employees or members on how to be more sustainable.

No — this doesn’t just mean putting in a recycling bin at work. This means coming up with an honest determination of where you can make the biggest reduction in emissions (or de-carbonize). Then, they encourage everybody to comply. Organizations can undergo a carbon audit to assess what aspects of operations are the biggest producers of greenhouse gasses. This can be done either internally or through an outside company. A key aspect of this committee would also be to inform employee’s what the organization current carbon footprint is and how everyone can help to lower it. This whole process will ensure that actions taken are really making a difference and are not just greenwashing their behavior.

It can be hard to get these changes implemented where you work. It takes effort, it takes money, it takes resources. You may encounter resistance for unknown reasons and hear things like “we just don’t have the human power to address this”, “this doesn’t impact our business”, or “why don’t we revisit this in the future” and the can is just kicked down the road again (hey, why don’t you recycle that can!).

But the truth is, addressing the climate crisis means that we must all take action and stop making excuses. We must make meaningful changes, and we must lead by example. Our future, our children’s future, and our Earth’s future depend on it. There is no Planet B.

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Jacob White
Age of Awareness

Dr. Jacob White is a software engineer working on atmospheric modeling and satellite data calibration. He has a PhD in astrophysics and is active in scicomm.