More cars, more planes, more ships all mean more pollution and more climate-impacting emissions. So it seems obvious that more spacecraft being shot out...

Depiction of Virgin Galactic Spaceship (Courtesy of Virgin Galactic)

More cars, more planes, more ships all mean more pollution and more climate-impacting emissions. So it seems obvious that more spacecraft being shot out of our atmosphere would have an effect on climatic systems too.

Sure enough, along comes a new study showing how a busy new industry of “space tourism” could affect the world’s climate. It dishes out good news/bad news results. The good news: more soot from spacecraft could actually help reduce average temperatures at middle latitudes. The bad news: the polar regions could see winter temperatures increase by 1 degree C over and above what climate models are already predicting for those regions.

While the study doesn’t name names, it seems to clearly point at least finger at Sir Richard Branson, entrepreneur extraordinaire, peak oil believer, green fuel cheerleader and chairman of Virgin Group, which includes the private space-flight company Virgin Galactic. (Branson, incidentally, was on hand for last week’s runway dedication at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, at which Virgin Galactic has a 20-year lease.)

All of which raises a few questions. First and foremost: is there any circumstance under which short, sub-orbital spacecraft trips for the wealthy (seats are $200,000-plus) could be considered a sustainable venture, much less a socially responsible one? And, if the answer is no, what does that make Branson: An eco-entrepreneur who simply can’t resist a technological challenge, green credibility be damned? Or a technotopian adventurer whose business interests will always demand more than pure environmentalism?

And then there’s the issue of human space travel in general. Is colonising the cosmos beyond our own watery planet homo sapiens’ only hope for avoiding extinction, as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking suggested this past summer? Or are dreams of space life a costly distraction when there are so many pressing problems on Earth in need of dollar- and brain-power now?

As many leading thinkers — from the Princeton scientists who devised the Stabilisation Wedge Game to the team of Siemens speakers who presented at last week’s European Future Energy Forum — keep reminding us, we already have the tools we need to solve our sustainability challenges. The greatest hurdle, it seems, is getting people to actually use them effectively instead of continuing to search for “magic bullets” or easier ways out.

As Walt Kelly’s Pogo observed so long ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Greenbang

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