David Lias

The stars seemed to align in recent days in two points of light – one brilliant, the other, not so much.

The bright point clearly demonstrates the efforts in science and technology that allowed a spacecraft to land on Mars. Information gathered by the machinery that now sits on the Red Planet will study it and hopefully help us learn more about how this once robust place may have perhaps been teeming with life until its climate vastly changed.

The other point of light -- arguably a bit dimmer than the one described above -- is a scientific study released this week that paints a dire picture for our home planet and for all us living on it due to the effects of climate change. Giving added significance to this study is the reaction of President Trump, who admitted this week that he's a very intelligent man who thinks the study is just a bunch of hogwash.

Let's talk about the latest Mars-related news first, since it's less depressing. Landing a spacecraft on Mars is one of the toughest challenges humanity can take on, and we did it!

The InSight lander, operated by NASA and built by scientists in the United States, France and Germany, touched down in the vast, red expanse of Mars’ Elysium Planitia just before 2 p.m. on Monday.

There it will operate for the next two Earth years, deploying a seismometer, a heat sensor and radio antenna to probe the Red Planet’s interior. Scientists hope that InSight will uncover signs of tectonic activity and clues about the planet’s past. Those findings could illuminate how Mars became the desolate desert world we see today.

Mars just ain't the planet it used to be, Joel Achenbach, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote in 2017. It's a desert world, with a pitifully thin atmosphere less than 1 percent the density of Earth's. That leaves the surface exposed to radiation and prone to huge temperature swings from day to night. If Mars was ever blue or green, it is surely red now. What happened?

Scientific equipment that's been orbiting the planet, along with two rovers that have been roaming around and sniffing here and there on Mars' surface, have helped scientists conclude that much and possibly most of the Martian atmosphere has been lost to space, violently scraped from the planet by the solar wind.

The solar wind is a steady stream of particles, mostly protons and electrons, emitted by the sun. It continues far beyond Pluto before finally tuckering out. Earth is also in its path but has a protective magnetic field, something Mars conspicuously lacks. The solar wind is deflected by Earth's magnetic field while pummeling Mars head on.

Why doesn’t Mars have a magnetic field to protect it from the solar wind and all that sputtering? The problem is right in the core of the planet. Mars had a magnetic field when it was young and its iron core was molten and convecting — which is what Earth's iron core does to this day. But Mars is smaller than Earth, and scientists have concluded that sometime about 4.2 billion years ago that molten Martian core froze up.

Unfortunately, Earth's magnetic field can't protect it from man-made climate change, which leads us to the second, more depressing point of light.

A few days before the InSight lander touched down on Mars, another group of scientists issued a dire warning. Climate change is a menace that threatens the wellbeing of the United States, they concluded. The phenomenon is already disrupting local communities in the U.S., and could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars a year without a significant effort to stop it, researchers found.

The findings, which come as part of a long-planned report, underscore the reality of climate change during the Trump presidency: the President may not believe in climate change or understand the science behind it, but he cannot control it or its political, economic and scientific consequences. And those consequences are stark.

The landmark new report, which comes from more than a dozen federal agencies and is known as the National Climate Assessment, includes more than 1,000 pages and the work of more than 300 authors breaking down climate change’s impacts in specific regions across the country, touching on everything from agricultural changes to sea-level rise to health effects.

According to reporting by Time magazine, the changes highlighted in the report “threaten the health and wellbeing of the American people” and “further disrupt many areas of life, exacerbating existing challenges and revealing new risks,” said David Easterling, a report author and scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Since the report is over 1,000 pages long, you can bet President Trump hasn't nor ever will read it. When asked about it, he replied with this gibberish: “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump said during a freewheeling 20-minute Oval Office interview with The Washington Post in which he was asked why he was skeptical of the report.

“As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it,” he added.

Trump did not address the fundamental cause of climate change. The president riffed on pollution in other parts of the world. He talked about trash in the oceans. He opined on forest management practices. But he said little about what scientists say is actually driving the warming of the planet — emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, said in an email to the Washington Post Tuesday that the president’s comments risk leaving the nation vulnerable to the ever-growing impacts of a warming planet. “Facts aren’t something we need to believe to make them true — we treat them as optional at our peril,” Hayhoe said. “And if we’re the president of the United States, we do so at the peril of not just ourselves but the hundreds of millions of people we’re responsible for.”

Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, struggled to find a response to the president’s comments. “How can one possibly respond to this?” Dessler said when reached by email, calling the president’s comments “idiotic” and saying Trump’s main motivation seemed to be attacking the environmental policies of the Obama administration and criticizing political adversaries.

The stated goal of the National Climate Assessment is to inform the president, Congress, and the public about up-to-date science on climate change and its effects in the U.S.

An earlier volume of the report warned that climate change has started causing problems for Americans in sectors ranging from construction and transportation to agriculture and forestry to health.

It says that more wildfires, decreased air quality, insect-borne diseases, and food- and waterborne diseases will take an increasing toll on human health, especially among children, the elderly, and the vulnerable.

It says that extreme weather and sea-level rise is causing damage to buildings, roads, railways, runways, and other facilities in many regions.

Climate change is also disrupting natural systems and displacing species, the report cautions, which could impact the ability of ecosystems to provide useful "services" like flood control and watershed maintenance.

"Many agricultural regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests, and other climate change-induced stresses," the report says.

The latest report echoes the same basic themes about climate change:

1. It’s already happening

2. It’s going to get worse.

3. It’s going to cost us dearly.

4. We can still do something about it.

We already have most of the tools we need to aggressively curb carbon dioxide emissions, thereby limiting the rise in global average temperatures. According to the report’s scientists, we must use them.

“Future impacts and risks from climate change are directly tied to decisions made in the present,” the assessment reads.

These tactics range from shifting to cleaner energy, to changing how we use land, to pulling carbon dioxide out of the air. The question is whether there is enough political will to deploy these methods on a meaningful scale.

At the same time, a certain amount of warming is unavoidable, so we will still have to adapt to higher temperatures, higher sea levels, and more extreme weather. “Adaptation and mitigation policies and programs that help individuals, communities, and states prepare for the risks of a changing climate reduce the number of injuries, illnesses, and deaths from climate-related health outcomes,” according to the assessment.

The biggest uncertainty in climate forecasting is always us: What will humanity actually do about climate change?

That’s a question that even 13 federal agencies and 300 scientists can’t answer. But the world’s nations are trying. The United Nations is now preparing to meet in Katowice, Poland, next month to discuss putting the Paris climate agreement into action, a goal complicated by the fact that one of the world’s largest emitters, the United States, wants out of the accord.

We just took on one of the toughest challenges humanity can face and we were successful. We landed a spacecraft safely on Mars.

We have a long journey ahead to preserve our planet and ourselves from the effects of climate change. It begins by accepting the challenge to solve this problem. The United States can take the lead by taking one small step. It must reclaim its role as a global source of progress. It can start by taking part in the Paris agreement.


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