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Space is not the final frontier — climate change is

Last Tuesday, from a launch site in West Texas, the Blue Origin rocket, called the New Shepard, took Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, along with three passengers, on an 11-minute ride 60 miles above earth, reaching the lowest ring of suborbital space where he and his cohort experienced four minutes of weightlessness.

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The rocket returned to earth while the nose capsule parachuted slowly down for a soft desert landing. Waiting for Bezos and his newly minted fellow space travelers were the press, technicians and cheering supporters. When the billionaire finally stepped out of the capsule, wearing a blue onesie and a cowboy hat, he was treated like a rock star. Had he been holding an electric guitar, well, it would have fit.

The cost of this vanity ride was $5.5 billion and change. Bezos’ net worth is a reported $209.2 billion, so, clearly, this ride barely nicked his vast fortune.

In a post-flight press conference, Bezos, describing the view out of one of the capsule’s over-sized windows, marveled at how amazed he was at the fragility of the planet below, and then went on to suggest that all heavy industry should be relocated to space (I assume he meant the main sources of global pollution), which he acknowledged would, of course, take decades.

What struck me as extraordinary is that it shouldn’t have taken a ride into space to recognize that our planet is, in this moment, beyond fragile. It is slowly dying. That is the existential context for what has become a billionaires’ space race (Richard Branson of Virgin and Elon Musk of Tesla/SpaceX), one joined by nations such as India, China, and the United Arab Emirates.

But before discussing the tenuous condition of our milky blue planet, consider the immediate impact those $5.5 billion could have had on humanity? It is estimated that those dollars could have funded the COVID-19 vaccination of some 2 billion people; eliminated one half of the world’s extreme poverty; fully funded Education Cannot Wait, which targets children uprooted by conflict and international disasters (as a result of COVID-19, 3 billion children worldwide have been displaced); and it could have planted up to 5 billion trees, which would have had a significant effect on our warming planet.

Our warming planet indeed. Consider only the Northwest of the United States, where 86 wildfires are burning, while resultant smoke drifts across the nation as far away as New York City. And an unprecedented, exacerbating heat dome sits over the West.

Our worldwide truth is that mankind is neither prepared to slow down climate change nor adapt to it. Instead we have continued, since the industrial revolution (1880s), to burn coal, oil and gas, while pumping greenhouse pollution into the atmosphere at an increasing rate, despite the formation of the Paris Climate Agreement (from which Trump withdrew for several years and President Biden only recently rejoined).

What environmental scientists have stated, unequivocally, for some years now, is that if the planet’s temperature exceeds the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is our current trajectory, a point of no return will soon be reached, bringing with it catastrophic results (some already being felt): droughts/fires will increase, extreme weather will be the norm, sea levels will rise, crop failures will occur with greater frequency, species are already struggling, coral reefs are dying off, and climate refugees will increase in number.

The narrow choice that now confronts us, fraught with urgency, is to halve global emissions by 2030.

To Jeff Bezos (and his ilk) I would say that the final frontier, to which space travel is often referred, is a misnomer. Mankind’s final frontier is global warming, and it represents a stark moral crisis for which we will be judged harshly if we fail to fix it. And then there’s that $5.5 billion 11-minute tourist ride.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.