Can astrobiology help solve climate change?

Contemplating alien worlds could help us learn more about our own.

Published: November 24, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Astrobiology could give climate scientists a new insight into the fate of our own planet. Credit: ISS Expedition 7 Crew, EOL, NASA


Climate change is drastically changing the environment and some wonder whether mankind is bringing about its own extinction.

In a new paper several astrophysicists have been pondering if we are the first civilisation to have caused such a massive atmospheric change.

But, rather than looking at our own planet to find the answers, they suggest looking further afield, at exoplanets.

The team argues that any alien civilisation that has evolved to a similar technological level to humanity would have to endure the same environmental problems caused by industrialisation.

“Even with the odds of evolving (such a civilisation) on a given habitable planet being one in one million billion, within our local region of the cosmos at least 1,000 species will still have passed through the transition humanity faces today,” says Woodruff Sullivan from the University of Washington.

Life...but not as we know it

If there are, or have been, other advanced civilisations out there the team wondered what the average lifetime of such a civilisation would be?

“Is it 200 years, 500 years or 50,000 years?

Answering this question is at the root of all our concerns about the sustainability of human society,” says Adam Frank from the University of Rochester.

“Are we the first and only technologically-intensive civilisation in the entire history of the universe?

If not, shouldn’t we stand to learn something from the past successes and failures of these other species?”

They suggest that the current trajectory of human culture might be universal among species that reach a certain level of ‘feedback’ with their host planet.

As a civilisation advances, they become more reliant on technology, leading to increasing energy requirements.

They argue that this evolutionary track isn’t unique to the human race, but a natural and generic pathway.

It would then be beneficial for those studying sustainability here on Earth to join forces with those investigating astrobiology, which takes a much longer look at the evolution of life and planets.


“By broadening the issue to think about other possible planets with other possible technical civilisations, we can perhaps gain some insights into our own situation,” says Sullivan.

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