As the reality of human-driven climate change increasingly sinks in around the world, it has provoked angst, denial, and species-wide self-loathing. Some have nicknamed this trend “the Misanthropocene,” a portmanteau that sums up negative assessments of humans as “a plague on the planet,” in the words of renowned naturalist David Attenborough.
These characterizations are “bullshit,” said Adam Frank, an astrobiologist and climate scientist at the University of Rochester. As a prolific science communicator and author of the newly published book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Frank has been on the frontlines of climate-change advocacy for decades, and he’s convinced that we tell “the wrong story” about the issue.
For the most part, Frank told me, people will either wholesale deny that humans are impacting Earth’s climate, or they accept the scientific consensus and conclude that “humans suck.”
“Enough with the human-hating,” Frank lamented. “Climate change shows how far we’ve progressed. We are now cosmic teenagers with power. The Anthropocene shows us that we have become the dominant force guiding the biosphere. That’s not something to be ashamed of, that’s something to be proud of—if we can then make smart choices and come into some kind of cooperative relationship with the biosphere.”
Of course, that’s a huge “if.” This uncertainty over our odds of survival in the face of climate change is a major throughline in Light of the Stars. As an astrobiologist, Frank approaches the question through the lens of the SETI (“the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”), and uses concepts such as the Drake equation—a probabilistic framework for estimating the number of alien civilizations in the Milky Way—to examine our own future on Earth.
For instance, any alien civilization with advanced technology would presumably need to generate power, so it may be that industry-induced climate change is a fairly common side effect of intelligent life throughout the universe.
With this in mind, Frank and his colleagues have published models of speculative alien civilizations that use different power sources at different rates. So far, they have been fairly basic simulations, but he hopes to integrate more sophisticated data about climate circulation, resource exploitation, and planetary change into future iterations to get a firmer grasp on whether climate change might be a deadly bottleneck for intelligent lifeforms.
“One goal of that research is to create a theoretical value for the final factor in the Drake equation,” Frank said, referring to the variable describing the estimated length of time that advanced alien civilizations survive. To do that, you have to “run a universe of models,” he said, and that’s what Frank and his fellow astrobiologists intend to accomplish in the coming years.
These kinds of studies can shed light on the longevity of human civilization, and could be enormously useful for outlining the best methods to prevent its collapse. But even if they reach dire conclusions about human survival on Earth, Frank thinks it is essential to resist self-flagellating our species for its past decisions, and focus instead on our present and future ingenuity. The way people frame the problem—for instance, as a shared challenge rather than a shared disgrace—will be a crucial ingredient in solving it.
“This is a dark time, but I think it’s also, in many ways, a remarkably hopeful time,” Frank told me. “Let’s unleash our capacity for innovation to deal with this problem. By flipping the script, you can engage a lot of people who otherwise would think you’re going to be hitting them over the head with guilt. You can find a broader audience, and break that polarization.”
“‘How do we stop sucking?’ is not the question to ask anymore,” he said. “The question is: ‘how do we mature?’”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.