There was, by all appearances, no panic of any sort. Quite the opposite: the Internet instantly filled up with pictures, videos and tweets of the light show and the percussion that followed. Then came the jokes: one was that Chelyabinsk residents detonated something and claimed it was an asteroid to get the government to provide them with replacement windows. A major television channel was successfully spoofed into accepting as real a video of what was supposedly the impact crater. Supposed bits of the meteor (which were only recovered on February 17) instantly appeared for sale. Some of the observers seemed positively giddy, describing how the shockwave made them jump, discussing how the object in question must have been traveling at supersonic speeds, then going on to estimate distances based on the lag time between the flash and the shock wave. In all, the reaction and the response could perhaps be best characterized by what is currently a very popular word in Russia: “adequate.”
By a complete coincidence, on that same day the Earth was buzzed by a much bigger body: an asteroid, nicknamed 2012 DA14. Coming from a different direction, it came closer to Earth than the ring of geostationary weather and communications satellites that hover in fixed positions over the equator 35,786 km above the planet, and could have caused far more extensive damage—similar to that caused by the one that exploded over Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, which is the largest meteor event in recorded history. (If it seems like Russia gets more than its fair share of cosmic debris, that's because it's big: try to hit the Earth from space, and you are likely to hit the ocean, but, failing that, you are quite likely to hit Russia.) But the coincidences don't end there: there was also a meteor seen over Ufa, Russia, on the 12th, and another one over Japan on the the 14th. There was another flash in the sky that rattled windows reported on the 12th near Cienfuegos, Cuba, and another on the 15th near San Francisco. Are we being bombarded from outer space? Is someone out there throwing rocks at us, from different directions? Let there be no rest for the conspiracy theorists!
Asteroids are exciting, because they are part of a small class of singular events capable of dramatically altering the course of history. There is nuclear war, followed by nuclear winter—but we like to think that we have nuclear war somewhat under control, simply because nuclear weapons make for good defense (deterrence) but bad offense, because nuclear confrontations offer no winning strategies for anyone. Then there are the massive volcanic eruptions, like the ones that triggered the Little Ice Age, which began quite suddenly between AD 1275 and 1300. We don't control these at all, of course, but we sometimes get some advance warning, and the events themselves can be arbitrarily nasty without being mysterious. Then there are pandemics like the Bubonic Plague which wiped out a third of Europe's population; their unpredictability provides some amount of excitement, plus epidemiologists tell us that their likelihood keeps rising, giving them an aura of inevitability. Less inevitable but also very nasty are solar storms that fry all of our electronics and take down the electric grid, while a supernova within the Earth's galactic neighborhood would be even nastier, potentially sterilizing the entire planet.
So much for unpredictable, history-altering, cataclysmic events. But there are a couple more—ones we can predict with complete accuracy and confidence. Let's start with the smaller one: there are 437 operational nuclear reactors in the world. These sometimes produce electricity (and steam for industrial and residential uses) but they always require electricity to run the cooling pumps, or they overheat and explode, like Fukushima Daiichi in Japan did. If they cannot get electricity from the grid, then they have to make their own, using diesel generators on site. And if these generators run out of diesel, then the reactors and the spent fuel pools all melt down and generate a radioactive plume that poisons the surrounding area for generations. The problem is that there probably isn't enough diesel to keep them supplied over the decades it would take to shift all of the nuclear waste into dry cask storage and bury the casks in tunnels in geologically stable rock that will at some remote date enter a subduction zone and melt safely into the Earth's mantle. Since we really don't want there to be 437 Fukushima Daiichi's, it would make sense for us to get cracking on the problem of eliminating these reactors from the face of the earth; but are we doing that? Of course not! We are extending the lifetimes of the existing reactors, and even building a few new ones.
And now we come to the really important cataclysmic event that at this point seems all but unavoidable: the effect of chemical changes to the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists have reached a consensus that anything beyond a 2ºC rise in average global temperature will put the Earth's climate in an unknown state, but probably one that is not conducive to our continued existence. Beyond that point, various tipping points are reached, causing positive feedback loops that can quickly take the climate very far from the homeostatic equilibrium we have enjoyed thoughout our history as a species: glaciers melt inundating coastal cities where much of the population lives; droughts parch farmland causing famines; extreme weather events cause ever greater damage to our infrastructure. A temperature rise in excess of 2ºC all but assures a planet that our children will not be able to live on. It will be a planet that we will not be around to not recognize. Now, it turns out that to avoid exceeding the 2ºC budget, we have to stop burning fossil fuels—all of them, and not at some point in the future, but right now. And not gradually taper down our use or attempt to shift to renewables over time, but cold turkey. All oil refineries, all gas distribution networks, all coal-fired power plants have to be shut down immediately; but are we doing that? Of course not! We are doing all we can to ramp up production of fossil fuels, to restore economic growth. As I write this, Bill McKibben and numerous protesters are gathered at the White House protesting the plans for the XL pipeline. I applaud the effort, but that's one pipeline out of how many?
It seems that we can't help ourselves at all, can we? But we can still hope. It seems like asteroids can potentially fix things for us. I would venture to guess that a series of good-sized asteroid impact craters around the world's financial and industrial centers would pretty much cancel the rest of the fossil fuel-burning extravaganza, saving the planet for our children (the few who will survive the transition to life without fossil fuels). This may seem to you like a raw deal, but then what's the alternative? Peaceful protest? Or would you like to try some more civil disobedience? There isn't any time for any of that left, you know; 2ºC is already baked in, and we are now working on something that goes beyond unpleasant and is starting to border on lethal.
But does hoping for a global fix to our fossil fuel predicament to rain down on us from heaven amount to hoping against hope? It is rational to hope for things that have a finite, non-negligible likelihood, but the likelihood of such a “solution” from outer space is unknowable. Rather, what we should do is pray. Now, it is well known that even avowed atheists resort to prayer under certain circumstances: mostly when they think they are going to die. Not all people are capable of such a realization, preferring to remain delusional, but I would like to think that you, dear reader, are sufficiently far-sighted and diligent in researching catastrophic climate change to realize that that is indeed the case: if the fossil fuel-burning machine isn't shut down now, you are facing extinction within just a few generations. It doesn't seem to matter how you pray or what deity or deities you pray to. What matters is that, through prayer, you take the locus of control over your destiny somewhere far outside your puny, helpless person and place it somewhere else—perhaps in the strange benevolence of nature that allows us to survive in spite of our best efforts. In so doing, you may find inner peace, and sometimes even the strength to survive.
And so, let us pray. Let us pray that a fix will show up before it is too late for us and for life on Earth as we know it. Clearly, we can't bring ourselves to do what's needed, which is to stop ourselves in our tracks no matter the immediate consequences. Let us therefore pray that there is a force somewhere in the universe, beyond our control, that can do that for us. And let us pray that we will be able to recognize it when it shows up, and that we will have the presence of mind to not fight it. If we can't win the battle for survival, then let's try going down in defeat.
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