Terraforming Mars versus Combatting Climate Change06 May 2020
nnovators and explorers at heart dream of one day terraforming Mars – converting it into a habitable, blue and green world. But there seems to be dichotomy over what humans can truly achieve. With the same breath, some lament humanity’s inability to control the pace and severity of climate change on our already – and uniquely – habitable planet, while simultaneously proclaiming the realism of reforming an entire inhospitable planet.
So can humanity truly terraform Mars when we can’t even combat climate change at home? There are a several factors to consider, and some cut in different directions. Consider these challenges and decide for yourself:
Number of Actors
Here on Earth, achieving global climate goals is incredibly difficult because of the cooperation problem. Developed countries like the U.S. are leading the way in emission reduction by deploying innovative and efficient technologies, switching to cleaner burning natural gas, and reducing consumption in key areas. Meanwhile developing countries, and newly industrial powers, including China, India, and others are increasing energy consumption and pumping far more emissions into the atmosphere.
Even international cooperative agreements like the Paris Agreement outlined goals and commitments but had little or no enforcement measures. Too many individuals, businesses, and nations taking different approaches and making different decisions makes a global goal like emission reduction virtually impossible to achieve.
On Mars, however, with no nations undermining others’ efforts, a singular plan could take effect. Currently uninhabited, the Red Planet could be under the influence of a single company or country working toward one goal: warm the planet.
Similarly, Mars has nothing to tiptoe around. While different countries acting in counterproductive ways may limit the effectiveness of a climatic strategy, another advantage for Mars is that the unintended consequences have limited potential for externalities. There are no concerns about plants, animals, businesses, air or water quality or anything else on Mars. If the goal is simply to spew emissions into the atmosphere to warm the planet, that can be done with wild abandon. The closer to a habitable world it becomes, the more this would matter, but at the outset, terraforming could be forceful and uninhibited.
On Earth, every action – even those with the intent to benefit others like limiting emissions – has to be balanced against its effect to plants, animals, and people. This is best expressed as externalities – costs to others that the actor does not internalize. When a factory emits smoke, a community downwind may experience breathing and lung complications. Those residents experience a cost that the factory did not internalize. One climate change example comes from wind farms. We can shift some of our energy production from fossil fuels to emission-less renewable sources. That would be a clear win for reducing emissions, except that the enormous blades routinely kill endangered species of bird and bat and disrupt migratory patterns. And when the lifecycle of the blades comes to a close, we must dispose of them.
It is clear that on Earth, even mitigating emissions, an ostensibly good thing, leads to different externalities. The diversity of life on Earth means virtually any action will impact something or someone else. This is not the case on Mars, and terraforming (at least in the early stages) could be calibrated to its most forceful form with little to no externalities to consider.
No one “owns” the Earth. Or maybe everyone owns Earth. Or at least everyone owns their respective part of Earth. In any case, the two analyses above continue to be a challenge for combatting climate change. Individuals, businesses, and nations with their respective ownership of land or sovereignty over entire regions can do with those areas what they choose.
This might interfere with the martian project as well. Who has the right to begin terraforming? Would it require global consensus or any approval at all? According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the moon and other celestial bodies are ineligible for sovereign claims. Wide ambiguity leaves the question of terraforming unsettled. While the goal is to promote peaceful and scientific exploration, that may preclude terraforming, which would disrupt and unsettle the geography, topography, atmosphere, and virtually every innate feature of Mars.
No nation may plant their flag and declare ownership over Mars. Perhaps a coalition of private or international bodies, like the International Space Station will be the solution. But with ambitious tech giants and billionaires like Elon Musk chasing the stars and the Red Planet, it is only a matter of time before a private company lands there and begins to interact (or interfere) with the martian atmosphere.
Lawsuits, sanctions, international diplomatic actions, or even war could be sparked by the executive decision to terraform Mars. On the one hand, having no residents, the Red Planet would have no issues with locals suing to halt operations. But on the other, Earth-bound actors may decry terraforming the planet as wrong or even complain about being excluded from participating in the process themselves!
Easier to warm than to cool
The simplest difference between counteracting global warming and terraforming a cold planet may just be that one is easier.
The science of flooding the atmosphere with particulate matter is simpler than eliminating them. The technology to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is expensive and complex. The technology to emit greenhouse gasses is as simple as exhaling, turning on a combustion engine, or allowing a cow to fart. (Of course the Martian atmosphere would need to be jumpstarted for that warming to stick.)
This also comes back to the cooperation problem above. On Earth, some people are trying to reduce energy consumption while others are intentionally ramping up energy production, some are cutting emissions and some are indifferent to emissions. On Mars, emissions would be a good thing, and there would be no one working counterproductively. The singular focus there could be to warm the planet. While here, in addition to people acting at odds with one another, we have other priorities like defense, health, food, shelter, and myriad other necessities. On Mars, any human crew would face such necessities like food, water, and shelter, but they would be in the closed system of their space or ground station while technology handles the atmospheric manipulation.
We already have it good here, so marginal change impacts us less. Marginal change on Mars would turn it from utterly inhospitable to possibly livable.
If we experience another degree of average Earth warming, many would count that as a loss. While on Mars a single degree increase would be counted as a major victory and proof that terraforming the planet is possible and within reach.
The difference between keeping a world habitable and making one habitable is orders of magnitude different. We will expend a lot of energy and brainpower to stay roughly the same on Earth, while a fraction of that effort could drastically transform Mars. The window of habitability is quite large. On Earth, we can keep living if the climate is an average of a few degrees warmer or cooler than it is right now, but small movements in that range are a big deal. Getting Mars just warm enough for humans to walk outside (in really thick clothes!) would meet the goal of habitability. Scientists can live in Antarctica, where the average annual temperature ranges from -76 degrees Fahrenheit at the most elevated parts of the interior to 14 degrees along the coast, so making Mars like our livable extremes would be a victory.
This is also a matter of perspective. Whether it is optimism versus cynicism, many are primed to see climate change as a losing battle and one that even if we stay where we are means we’ve lost. They may want us to not only stop warming, but start cooling. Not only switch to renewable power, but reduce energy consumption as well.
Innovators see the world differently. They see more exciting solutions the more complicated the problem is. That is why converting an entire inorganic rock into a second home is a project for optimists, who will view every achievement as a monumental stride towards eventual success.
These are only a few of the factors that differentiate earthly climate change and terraforming mars, and are presented in simplistic fashion. Some cut in different directions, and some align with each other. As it stands, we are thriving on Earth and have not yet planted our feet on the martian surface. Many new considerations may arise as technology and political considerations change. Deeper and more technical considerations of climate solutions may be found here, here, here, here, and here. For terraforming and martian considerations, look here, here, here, here, here but with Elon Musk, and here.
It will take a lot of innovating, but humans might just be able to convert Mars into a livable planet. It may never look like Miami, but it might just allow scientists to roam the surface in less expensive clothing. As for climate change, innovators with their feet on the ground work every day to reduce emissions, capture CO2 directly, improve battery technology to give renewables a stronger foothold, and even planting more trees! Humans are resilient and clever, don’t count us out of any project!
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.