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The Irony of Finding So Many Exoplanets in a Time of Climate Change

6 minute read

There was nothing quite like the slang used in the early days of the space program. Saying something was “OK” would not do when you could say “A-OK” instead. Saying, “Let’s get moving,” when you’ve been sealed in your spacecraft for hours waiting to launch while Mission Control sorts out technical glitches, was weak tea compared to the “Light this candle!” as an exasperated Al Shepard barked in 1961.

And then, too, there was “screw the pooch.” A cleaned-up version of a decidedly coarser term, it meant, in the pilot’s argot, to crash your jet or lose your spacecraft or do anything else that amounted to not flying your mission as you were expected to fly it. We all screw the pooch sometimes—at work; in our relationships; with our finances.

Now, it increasingly appears that the human species—given a single, fragile Earth to live on—has managed to screw the entire planetary pooch. New data released by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirm both that 2019 was the second hottest year on record—finishing behind only 2016—and that the 2010s as a whole were the hottest decade overall. Temperatures last year were 0.98º C (1.8º F) warmer worldwide than the mean from 1951 to 1980. And while 1.8º F doesn’t seem like much (could you tell the difference if the temperature rose from 66º to 67.8º while you were taking a walk?), that’s actually a very bad number.

The environment is a lot like your body—exquisitely sensitive to small thermal changes—which is why you very much do feel the difference when you are running a fever of 100.4º, even that too is only 1.8º F hotter than normal. (One thing we haven’t noticed, according to surprising study released earlier in the week, was that human body temperature on the whole has been falling by about .03º C (.054º F) per decade since the 1860s.)

What’s more, the heat is not distributed evenly across the planet, so while 2019 was only the 34th warmest year on record for the contiguous 48 states, the Arctic—where Greenland is sloughing off melting glaciers at an increasingly alarming rate—is warming three times as fast as the global average.

The fires and floods and hurricanes and droughts and heat waves that result from such climatic disruption are only part of the harm that’s being done. So too are the increases in malaria, dengue fever, lung disease and starvation that are more common in an overheated world shrouded in dirty air.

Added to this was a new study published in Nature Medicine and reported by TIME, showing that climate change can lead to an increase in injuries and accidental or intentional deaths. As temperatures rise, after all, so do tempers, meaning a jump in violent crime, assault and car accidents. A 2018 study showed that in both the U.S. and Mexico, suicide rates climb by 0.7% and 2.1% respectively for each 1° C (1.8º F) rise in average monthly temperatures. Drownings increase too—by 14%—simply because people are swimming more. In the U.S., if average annual temperatures rise more than 2° C over pre-industrial averages, all of this is estimated to cause an additional 2,135 people their lives every year.

The consistently wonderful Onion, as is so often the case, captured the issue best in a story headlined Planet Earth Doesn’t Know How to Make it Any Clearer it Wants Everyone to Leave. We’re not going anywhere, of course. We have just the one planet and at the moment, no country or private company has the capacity to carry people beyond low-Earth orbit—never mind to a fresh, pristine world, where we can start all over.

The irony is that all of this comes at a time when the study and discovery of exoplanets—or planets orbiting other stars—is booming. As we reported in last week’s newsletter, what astronomers are looking for especially are rocky, Earthlike worlds, with an atmosphere like Earth and water like Earth, orbiting their parent stars in the so-called Goldilocks zone—where temperatures are not too hot and not too cold, but just right for that water to exist in a liquid state. The meta-irony is that we’re conducting that work from just such a world already. Yes, the point of the search is to find worlds on which other life might exist, but the very act of hunting for such a prize would—or at least should—help us better appreciate the garden planet we’ve got.

Astronauts, who have seen the Earth in ways the rest of us haven’t, have a particular appreciation for its loveliness and fragility. Some are men and women of faith. Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, has spoken often and openly about his beliefs. Charlie Duke, who walked on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission, came home to found a Christian Ministry.

Jim Lovell is more circumspect about his faith. Lovell, later the commander of Apollo 13, was also a member of the Apollo 8 crew, the first human beings to orbit the moon—and to move far enough from Earth to see it in full, hanging in space. It was the mission that produced the celebrated Earthrise picture (seen above), and the mission during which the crew read passages from Genesis down to Earth on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Discreet though he might be about discussing spirituality, Lovell, now 91, says he’s often asked about such matters, including whether or not he believes in heaven. “Yes,” says the man who flew twice to the moon and twice saw the fragile, glassy, blue-white, Earth surrounded by the killing void of space. “I was born in heaven.”

A version of this article was originally published in TIME’s Space newsletter. Click here to sign up to receive these stories early.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com