When I come across discussions and articles on Climate Change that have the suggestion of “moving to Mars” I honestly have the thought of slapping that person on the backside of the head – not that I’d ever follow through with that thought, but I can’t deny that it is there. That kind of thought likely stems from media that shows such cases of slapping with the association of “you just said something you didn’t really think through” as comic relief, but in reality hitting people isn’t so funny unless it is in mutual play. So what this really comes down to is the claim that the solution to our climatic challenge is to move to Mars, is one that hasn’t had much thought put into it, and there are several reasons for this that can be summed up in two.
1) Atmosphere & Magnetic Field of Mars
Mars is no where near habitable as it currently is, mostly because there is very little atmosphere and no global magnetic field on Mars. That means that we would receive direct radiation via galactic cosmic rays and solar energetic particles, drastically increasing the likelihood of developing a fatal form of cancer. But lets not forget that that thin atmosphere also means we wouldn’t be able to breathe.
To actually be the solution it has been touted as you would have to be able to move all of planet earth’s human inhabitants onto mars, and that would mean it would need an atmosphere for all these people to breathe. To actually establish this atmosphere would require a process that would take at least several decades if not centuries to reach a level of self regulation through planet wide photosynthesis. This is because the plants would have to adapt to a lighter gravity, cope with radiation, and would initially require their own protective chambers of some form. At least up until enough oxygen is created to have a large enough atmosphere that they would no longer require their protective chambers. Even then the planet may not be able to hold onto a denser atmosphere because of its smaller size. Either way, until a denser atmosphere is reached it isn’t a solution for everyone, just a small group who would have to face a lot of challenges. Like their comrades developing fatal cancers, the inability to reproduce, possible fall outs between the few that you were left with for the rest of your days, and those days being sustained either by rations, supply drops, or lab grown food. This whole while you are relying on advanced technology. What if that technology needed repair? What if you don’t have the means to fix it? What if one of you snap from the years of isolation and sabotage everything as a means to quicken what was perceived as inevitable; what all of you were already thinking, “Is this a suicide mission?”
2) How can we terraform another planet if we can’t even manage our own?
In the first point there is really no other resources than what you bring with you. On Earth we have a biodiversity of plants supporting our atmosphere, on a planet that already has its own global magnetic field. These plants are a source of food, tools, clothing, shelter, medicine, and more, all already accessible. There is water, and lots of it already in liquid form. We can step outside, breathe in deep and not worry about not having anything to breathe in, freezing to death, and getting radiated all at once. Earth has a lot more going for it than Mars by a long stretch. Even if we could terraform another planet, we could just then fix our own and not move.
With Earth having a lot more going for it there are proponents of geoengineering Earth to correct Climate Change and there are a lot of tech designs out there for that very purpose. This is a lot more reasonable but there is the problem of unintentionally making things worse. We still have a whole lot to learn about how our own planet even works, so a small tinker here may bring about some drastic result there. Yet all of these things don’t really deal with the underlying problem – the cause of current Climate Change. Without tackling the cause there won’t be a solution, and the cause of our planetary woes can be easily summed in one word – Pollution.
As it is we are essentially wasting time throwing designs out there to change the planet, all the while not designing nearly enough to change our lifestyles to suit our planet.
Our modern settlement patterns have been becoming uniform, usually skewing toward “western” infrastructure, which means buildings on life support systems. These are things like gas heating/cooking, electric heating/cooling/cooking/lighting/etc. So if those support networks breaks down, in lets say a hurricane black out, our buildings are then unable to support us as they should. This is a symptom of us already relying too much on our technology which is itself causing our climate problems to begin with. Most everything we do to support our modern lifestyles is reliant on pollutive technology. What our planet really needs is designs for infrastructure that are sustainable for where we are on earth. A design solution for Western Europe won’t due for the Middle East, and both these climate regions have great examples of responding to that reality.
Germany was where PassivHaus (Passive House) was started in 1990 and is growing worldwide. It is a design process that is integrated with architectural design in which buildings are ultra-low energy. They incorporate passive solar design and landscape (heating building through the sun directly in cool seasons, and shading from the sun in warm seasons), superinsulated (significantly reduces heat and cold transfering from outside), have advanced window technology (are insulative and able to utilize solar heat gain), high airtightness (to minimize heat loss/gain from the outside environment), efficient ventilation (strategic location for passive cross ventilation in warm weather and efficient air exchangers in cool weather), efficient space heating, and passive to low-energy lighting. A PassivHaus can readily use 90% less energy input than a conventional standard building. Meaning that the majority of the functions of the building are not dependent on being connected to energy infrastructure, and what little that is can easily be self producing with sustainable energy sources, like a solar panel on the roof.
The United Arab Emirates has a very different climate from the temperate north and has developed an entire city that is a shining example of what ought to be done for their climate. Masdar City. Masdar is a zero-carbon, zero-waste city with a sustainable mixed-use development. It is designed to be very friendly to pedestrians and cyclists with its buildings tall and clustered to shade the streets, walkways and surrounding buildings. It has terracotta walls with open, shaded ventilation. A 45-meter high wind tower modelled on traditional Arab designs channeling air from above and pushes a cooling breeze through Masdar’s streets. The site is raised above the surrounding land in order to create a slight cooling effect. Through shorter, narrower streets, usually no longer than 70 meters, the buildings at the end of these streets create just enough wind turbulence to push air upwards, creating a flushing effect that cools the street. The temperature on Masdar’s streets are generally 15 to 20°C (27 to 36°F) cooler than the surrounding desert.
Most of these passive designs stem from studying the ancient indigenous settlement patterns that were themselves originally designed to adapt to the local environment. Perhaps we may be better off taking a look back in order to move forward instead of blindly running forward just to fall back.