Stephen Hawking, renowned theoretical physicist and one of the brightest scientific minds of the last half century, died at age 76 this week. In a career spanning 50 years—and challenged by a crippling disease—Hawking set his mind to understanding the Universe. After decades of investigating everything from black holes to the Big Bang, he recently turned his attention to something more Earthly in nature: climate change.
Last year, Hawking warned in a BBC documentary that in order for humanity to save itself from the threats of climate change, disease, and overpopulation we need to colonize Mars within 100 years. Released shortly after President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June 2017, Hawking told BBC News “Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.”
“By denying the evidence for climate change, and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world, for us and our children,” he said.
A year before making this pronouncement, Hawking had said that it was a “near certainty” that we’ll harm our planet beyond repair in the coming millennia. Again, he warned that global warming or genetically engineered viruses could conceivably wipe out the human species.
“Although the chance of a disaster on planet Earth in a given year may be quite low,” Hawking said, “it adds up over time, becoming a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years.”
He said with science and technology changing the world so dramatically, it’s important for everyone in a democratic society “to have a basic understanding of science, to make informed decisions about the future.”
I don’t think he had EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Red Team, Blue Team debate in mind.
Hawking’s statements on the end of humanity struck many as too extreme and doomsday-centric. When he compared Earth’s future to that of Venus, scientists and journalists were quick to fact-check the physicist, pointing out that there’s little evidence a runaway greenhouse like the one that produced Venus could occur on Earth today.
In response to Hawking’s comments about the “near certainty” of our species’ self-destruction and the need to colonize space, Katie Herzog at Grist said, “Now, I’m no genius, but it strikes me that we might be better off using our massive resources, technology, and brain power to save the planet we’ve already got rather than trying to colonize others. You know—the one with all that nice oxygen we humans tend to enjoy.”
Space colonization or not, rapidly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is still a no-brainer. Outspoken climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said as much while listening to one of Hawking’s recent talks:
Hawking, an impassioned cosmologist, always had his eye on space. It’s no surprise he thought the key to humanity’s future lay there, noting last July that “the best hope for the survival of the human race might be independent colonies in space.”
But what he said about how we handle our affairs here on Earth—how we treat our shared global environment and each other—should not be overlooked, either.