Fifty years ago, man landed on the moon. And it was a giant leap for mankind in many senses. Nothing can be said to dispute that human endeavour — taken into the context of the United States-Russia space rivalry. The Apollo 11 breakthrough had opened the road for future lunar missions and beyond. Now, the race to venture deeper into space is shared between the US, China, India and Russia. The US plans to send a manned mission to Mars, while India has just launched a probe to discover the Moon’s South Pole.
Billions of dollars have been spent on the multinational International Space Station and there are plans to build lunar settlements and launch ambitious inner space programmes.
But is that what is needed now when the Earth itself is facing a series of existential crises? Writing in the Washington Post on July 18, Lori Garver, chief executive at Earthrise Alliance and former deputy at Nasa from 2009 to 2013, has other thoughts. She says that the “The impossible problem today is not the Moon. And it’s not Mars. It’s our home planet, and Nasa can once again be of service for the betterment of all”. She adds that a recent Pew Research Center study found that 63 per cent of respondents said monitoring key parts of Earth’s climate system should be the highest priority for America’s space agency — sending astronauts to the Moon was their lowest priority, at 13 per cent; 18 per cent favour Mars.
Garver went on to say that climate change — not Russia, much less China — is today’s existential threat. Data from Nasa satellites show that future generations here on Earth will suffer from food and water shortages, increased disease and conflict over diminished resources.
She goes on to say that Nasa could also move beyond measurement and into action — focusing on solutions for communities at the front lines of drought, flooding and heat extremes. Garver adds that assigning Nasa this task would require an Apollo-scale change — but could be accomplished within its existing mandate and by shifting funding priorities.
Away from Graver’s arguments we in the Arab world should heed her advice and take measures. Climate change is a reality and one that is a bitter reminder to all nations that something is wrong with our planet. When abnormal heatwaves gripped northern Europe last month and hurricanes and tropical storms battered the southern coasts of the US, both citizens and governments should take note. And when there is plenty of evidence of fast melting glaciers, especially in the North Pole, the scientific community, as well as lawmakers in charge, should take action.
Here in the Middle East, climate change effects can be felt on almost a daily basis. Record high temperatures are being registered in Kuwait and other places, while unpredictable weather is now being observed in some parts of the region.
With more scientific data being presented every day, hardly anyone claims seriously that climate change is a hoax. And the causes are now beyond suspicion. Last year, deforestation of the Amazon forest hit a ten-year high, with about 7,900 square kilometres being cleared in Brazil alone between August 2017 and July 2018 — the worst annual deforestation rate in a decade. Recent data is even worse.
The pollution of waterways and oceans has reached unprecedented levels. Water temperatures in oceans are rising and causing more hurricanes and typhoons. The carbon footprint of countries such as China had increased by 4.7 per cent in 2018. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-burning grew for a second consecutive year in 2018. Our world is in need of an emergency plan to save oceans, forests and our natural heritage for the sake of future generations.
In December 2016, the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal was adopted in Paris by 195 countries. It set out a global action plan to avoid climate change by limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees. It was disappointing that US President Donald Trump’s first order of business, when he moved into the White House, was to withdraw from this agreement.
Discovering space and reaching for Mars remain noble causes for mankind, but they pale in comparison as we attempt to the save the only planet we can call home. Earth has been our home for millions of years and we have no other alternative. We can continue to back unmanned missions to discover our planetary system, but taking immediate measures to save our planet must be a priority.
We are losing thousands of species every year and we stand to lose even more if nothing is done. Our endeavour as members of the human species is to save this amazing planet and its myriad species from destruction. We can aim for space, but unless we save our home base we will be doomed.
While the search for the truth about our existence beyond our planet is legitimate, the need to reconcile our doubts and fears regarding our subsistence as a species on this planet is more pressing than any time before.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Jordan.