Episode 10 - The Future of Life on Earth (Transcription)
Mattimore: Welcome to hence the future podcast. I'm Mattimore Cronin. And today we are discussing part one of a two part Series in part one will be exploring the future of life on Earth. And next week in part two will extrapolate further to explore the future of life. Beyond Earth our special guest for this two part series is Michael Kipp. Kipp is a biologist and Earth scientist who is currently finishing up a PhD at the University of Washington his research focuses on the long-term coevolution of life and its environment across Earth's history.
He's also a good friend of mine. We were roommates all through college at Notre Dame. We were both classicist. We both went on archaeological excavations and butrint. We've traveled to many other parts of the world together and I couldn't think of a better person to bring on the podcast to talk about how Earth went all the way from when it was originally born up until how it may inevitably die.
So kept it's a pleasure to have you on.
Michael Kipp: Oh, thank you for having me happy to join.
Mattimore: So before we get into this super interesting crazy questions like. How it's all going to come to an end. And what we as humans are going to do about that. Let's first start with how Earth came to be in the first place. So can you shed some light on how does a planet form what determines whether a planet is formed or a star is formed and how did Earth come to be in the first?
Michael Kipp: Yeah, so that's a great place to start what we currently know about the way that planets and also just solar systems form in general is that they form at the same time?
That's to say that our working model is that there's a basically a cloud of dust that for some reason or another is perturbed. The latest thinking is that this was done through a adjacent Supernova in the early stages of our solar system and that introduction of some disturbance to this cloud of matter basically causes it to start to gravitationally collapse upon itself.
And you can imagine this as a swirling disk of matter with the most Mass becoming concentrated at the center. And it exists more or less than a planar fashion. It's a flat disc and this goes on for a few million years eventually getting almost 99% of the mass in the center of that disc, which is what becomes a star or our sun and out at distances you actually get very tiny, almost negligible sized pebble looking things basically with these are the planets and so each of the planets in our solar system formed through the aggregation of smaller and smaller pieces into large agglomerations. And that's how they came to be all orbiting the Sun in the same direction.
So they were more or less born at the same time as each other the stars and their respective planet.
Mattimore: That's interesting because when you talk about a swirling disk, the Milky Way itself is one giant swirling disk. So it seems like it's all happening on different scales and I guess asteroids are moons going around the planets would be even smaller Pebbles.
Michael Kipp: Exactly. So it's the same exact sorts of processes at work at different scales that are giving rise to similar phenomena.
Mattimore: Okay, great. So, my next question is once Earth has formed as a. How did Life come to be so what what is special about earth and its conditions that made it appropriate for life to develop and how might life have originally sparked? That's one thing. I've personally never never really known like how the process got going in the first place.
Michael Kipp: This is a very good question one that could go on for a lifetime. Really. The first side of it is what makes a planet habitable or that is to say, has the conditions that could potentially support life.
So this is the first part of the question before we say, how did life actually arise and when we think about this in the context of just planetary environments in general you can pin a few particular characteristics on a certain planet as being vital to being able to support life one that jumps to the top of the list usually is the fact that Earth.
As far back as we can see in the geologic record has had liquid water persisting on its surface and what that tells us is Will first of all that water is the preferred solvent in which all of life's reactions occur. But in order for it to have been persisting an Earth surface environment, it means that we had a relatively stable climate for billions of years in fact, and so when we talk about making a planet habitable or suitable for having life develop on it. One thing that jumps to the top of many lists is that we want to be able to have a stable climate that can support liquid water on the surface of a planet. So that amongst other things perhaps is something that enable the Earth as opposed to other planets to become a place where life could arise. Evolve diversify and so on.
Mattimore: But other planets seem to have some water. I think we found that Mars now has a decent amount. I think they I think I even like a week or two ago. They found that even the moon might have some Harris amounts exactly.
Michael Kipp: Actually. This is a perfect time to be discussing this question because just in the last few months there have been these exciting discoveries of water in various forms on the both the moon and Mars.
So this is a very good comparison for understanding why the earth looks like it. The Blue Planet covered in oceans teeming with life and Mars which in many respects we think is a dead Planet that's not to say we can prove that there is or is not life with the available evidence, but it's clearly at least not teaming with a vibrant ecosystem such as Earth's and the obvious difference when you look at the surface of Mars today is that it is not flooded with oceans like the Earth is but you're right, there is some water there today and actually what that water that's there today. Tells us both in analyses of the actual composition of the H2O or of the isotopic composition of the hydrogen and the oxygen on Mars, but also through other pieces of evidence like morphological evidence on the surface.
They all tell us that there was quite a bit more water on Mars when it was a young planet a few billion years ago. And so that raises an important question then. It's not just enough to have had liquid water. But what does it take to keep your oceans on a planet and there are two possible things that make Mars in that respect very different from the earth.
The first obvious one that you can just notice by looking at the two planets is that Mars is quite a bit smaller. It's on the order of one order of magnitude smaller about 10 times less mass than the Earth. And so it has quite a bit weaker gravitational pull to it. And therefore it's easier for molecules in the atmosphere including water vapor to achieve escape velocity.
And leave the planet this can occur when for instance meteorites or asteroids enter the atmosphere energized particles in the atmosphere and some of those will achieve escape velocity and this can erode the atmosphere of a planet with it the oceans through time and the second side of that is that perhaps due to its smaller size Mars does not have an active core like in the center of the Earth where there is a liquid outer core revolving around solid inner core and because of the metallic composition of this generates a magnetic field and what the Earth's magnetic field does is protects it from the solar wind which has chole charged particles emitted from the Sun towards Earth that if it weren't for the magnetic field, they would energized particles in the atmosphere and he rode them but because it contacts the magnetic field the Earth's atmosphere is spared that erosion whereas Mars is vigorously eroded by the solar wind and so over a few billion years two planets that may have both been habitable early on in their history Earth and Mars have very different life stories whereas Mars seems to have lost most of its water and perhaps lost its abilities of to support life. There's Earth to this day remains a inhabited planet.
Mattimore: Hmm. And what's the role of I've also read that. The fact that we have a moon is very beneficial and also the fact that we have Jupiter is beneficial because Jupiter basically takes a lot of the hits as far as asteroids colliding that might otherwise collide with Earth or or Mars or other water-bearing planets.
Michael Kipp: Yeah. So these are both things that people speculate might contribute to the fact that Earth is not just inhabited but has been continuously inhabited on planetary time skills billionaire time skill because like we're going back to our image of the Proto-solar system this disk of matter swirling together in these planets forming through accretion of smaller planetesimals.
It's a violent place. And in fact the very impact event that formed our moon was that of the proto-earth being impacted by a planetesimal about the size of Mars. And so that was a extremely violent. It melted the surface of the Earth and that planetesimals became our moon because it got gravitationally trapped by Earth's gravitational pull and that's why it revolves around us today still but it's moving ever slowly away from the earth actually with time.
So in any case the fact that we have this large moon now can perhaps play a protective role that is on Earth what one way being that it actually stabilizes the Earth's you can imagine as the Earth orbits and also spins in space it has a bit of a wobble to it and this is actually just a few degrees. It's a very minor thing if you were to imagine a top wobbling on a tabletop. But that's actually enough to in recent past and the last two million years can get us into and out of ice ages. Just these small little wiggles and if it weren't for the gravitational effect of a large Moon, we would perhaps have much larger wiggles.
It would in that sense. Perhaps give us much more dramatic climate fluctuations, which might not be good for longevity of life on the planet. So it is possible that the large moon is an.
Mattimore: I mean it's interesting. It seems like so much of life on Earth is tied with the moon. You know, when you think about the tide or you think about you know female reproductive cycles, I mean so much of it.
It's almost like I wonder what would happen in the short term if you had like a giant spaceship knock the moon off orbit. Would that like wreak havoc on humans and like the near-term or what? It would be pretty much be okay until some asteroid came and then we're not protected.
Michael Kipp: You know, luckily, I think it would be difficult with the technologies that I think are reasonably available to us now and in the near future to actually get the moon considerably out of its current orbit around the Earth.
So unlike for instance what we could do potentially to asteroids that are headed for Earth. If we catch them early enough on and a great enough distance. We do actually have the technology the capability of redirecting those such that they do not hit the Earth, but when you're very far away with a much much smaller object.
It's actually easier to cause a very minut deflection that actually when you add that up across the angle integrated across the whole distance is traveling from that point to the Earth would perhaps miss the Earth, but right.
Mattimore: Yeah, we should talk about that when we talk about the destruction of Earth, but let's say just for argument's sake because I think it's interesting if there was like a superior civilization that was able to knock the moon completely out of Earth's orbit.
Do you think that that would like have significant adverse effects on humanity and other earthlings or do you think we would pretty much be okay, except for the protection aspect.
Michael Kipp: You know, if it were theoretically possible to near more or less instantaneously remove the Moon from its its position, I don't know that it would have an instantaneous effect on our climate stability. On you know a human time scale of whether time skills. But once we even start to get too short term climate, once you're probably in the hundreds to thousands of years than I think you could easily start to see some effect on the severity of which I can't guess to yet, but just for reference will say that even the tiny wobble in the Earth's orbit that happens in the presence of the moon is enough to put us into an ice age where there's one mile of ice sitting above New York City and out of that to the the present day. So it would be severe than that.
Mattimore: Yeah, it's crazy. It seems like we're at this equilibrium. That's very tenuous and yet it's been relatively stable across time and we should talk about the Gaia hypothesis. But but first we should get back to the first part of the second part of that question earlier, which is how do you think or how do scientists hypothesize that life first came to be on earth? So we have Earth that has all of these conditions that are perfect for life to form. But how does that seed initially gets sewn?
Michael Kipp: Yes, well, that's perhaps the million-dollar question. That one could ask what is the mechanism of the origin of life so I can't claim to have an answer for you. But what I can do is point out and discuss something about different theories that people have proposed and some common threads of all of these are the fact that like we discussed already there was liquid water present on the surface of the Earth nearly as far back as we can find evidence for in fact even older than the oldest rocks on the planet. There are minerals that contain hints of the fact that there is liquid water interacting with crust essentially right after the Earth formed.
So if you take that there is. Water present people try to come up with these models of what the atmosphere is made of this is based on some empirical constraints other just theoretical arguments and one of the actually the most seminal things that was done to extend this concept of a potentially habitable Earth to a mechanism for the origin of life was to try to create those conditions in the lab, take what we thought the composition of the atmosphere was that is next to no oxygen in contrast to the day but there is nitrogen and that atmosphere and it was, as opposed to oxidizing environment, like we have today a reducing environment you introduce these gases that are thought to be in the atmosphere and you introduce a little bit of energy in the form of lightning perhaps and in fact, this is what this is a famous experiment named after its designers Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago the Miller-Urey synthesis. Basically they did this experiment ran it for a few weeks in their lab and were able to generate simply by abiotic Lee zapping this theoretical early Earth atmosphere with some lightning. They synthesized many of the amino acids that are found In our biomass to this day right in addition to nucleobases that are part of our DNA and so on and so forth and a range of other organic molecules. So it seems not that hard to at least get the building blocks the basic building blocks the with just a little bit of warmth a little bit of water a little bit of organic matter.
Mattimore: I can't help but think of Zeus hurling lightning bolts at different planets. Impregnating those planets with life.
Michael Kipp: You know, it's a different metaphor, but it's really essentially the same story line. If you look at it that way or from this Miller-Urey synthesis point of view.
Mattimore: It also reminds me of the movie Life where it's kind of a horror movie sci-fi horror, but it's with Ryan Reynolds, and basically they find some complex life on Mars in one of their probes and they take it back to the lab and they're trying to make it grow so they can study it because it's in this like it's basically like in a coma almost. I don't know what the scientific term for that would be but they try to look. Okay. Let's try the early Earth.
And so then they have all of the different. You know all the different chemical compositions and everything and then they're like, okay that didn't work and they try a couple other environments and then finally it grows but it does seem very much like playing God when you can have the right conditions and zap a little energy into it and get something that was previously not alive to be alive. And of course the question of what does it even mean to be alive is also a difficult one to answer. You know, that's a difference between biotic and abiotic matter. I mean, it's all the same building blocks. So what's even going on there?
Michael Kipp: Exactly and that's really the threshold that's being discussed when people ask how life got going on our planet and potentially on others.
They're confronting this transition from what we would define as a biotic to something. We would define as biotic matter and when you break it down and. Realize that yes, it's the same matter and the same chemical and physical principles applying to both it sort of makes it on the one hand difficult to define what life is pain the other hand opens up this view of life not so much as a noun as a thing as a stuff but rather is a verb whether is a type of process and this is sort of scientifically phrased in the sense that life is defined in our best attempts, not just as organic carbon of certain building blocks in this and that but it also has to undergo Darwinian evolution is that is evolution by natural selection. And so that threshold which people sometimes referred to as the Darwinian threshold is perhaps what we would call the origin of life.
So it's not to say that some new type of matter was necessarily invented. But at a certain point what was purely what we would call chemical experimentation reached a point where the system the whole system was then subject to this sort of natural selection.
Mattimore: It's almost reminds me of the Von Neumann probes, which is this thought experiment where if you can just put out one probe that is able to take molecules and build another version of itself.
Which then that new version builds another version and it keeps going until basically the whole universe is full of these Von Neumann probes. It's almost like how life is. I mean you get once you get the first living cell that can split into two and then those split even further become more complex and then you have more complex life forms creating more of themselves. And and you know, who knows where this crescendo is leading towards. But I love to hear your thoughts on how the process of life like, what are the fundamental components of how life develops? And then how is that different from what we consider to be man-made because that's another part that that has always confused me is when people say, oh, this is man-made. It's terrible what we're doing to the Earth. But then it's like wait a minute. We are the Earth like we are nature like for us to think that we're not nature almost seems hubristic where it's like we're separate from everything else so and but it does seem like we're able to effect changes much more rapidly than was possible in the past through what scientists many of them assumed to be an unconscious process so I guess like what are your thoughts on how what drives life and whether that process is unconscious or conscious and how that differs from the process of humans coding new algorithms.
Michael Kipp: Yep, that's it's a very contentious topic perhaps so. I think there's some understandable need scientifically to pin something as being life or not when we'd say do things like search for life on other planets. We need to have a clear definition of it is this it is not that this is what we're looking for so that we know whether we're successful or not. And so usually what people are talking about there is something that you can an operational definition of life that includes features like is made of organic carbon, reproduces, undergoes evolution by natural selection amongst other things and utilizes an energy source, basically maintains internal order by consuming energy and excreting low-grade waste products that is moves uphill essentially.
Mattimore: It's like combating entropy basically to keep yourself in order to keep itself
Michael Kipp: Those are some of the pillars of what people would Define as a biological system. But again, when you start to then extrapolate that into something that is clearly human-made, that is, we tinkered with it and. It becomes tricky because yes you on the one hand. You're right. You can't say that it's not.
A living thing if it's if it's something that's growing evolving reproducing for instance like a computer virus, you know and many named because it does behave so much like a virus of the organic sort. This doesn't really fall into the same scientific scrutiny because we aren't at a point where we need to define that in order to do these sorts of exploration and so that really is something that's not well decided upon it. You'll get different answers when you talk to different people. I think the simplest thing to say is that it is clearly analogous sorts of processes that are shaping the evolution of the technological entities just like biological organic messy muddy entities that we're used to calling life. So I don't know that I can come up with a clear answer as to where I would draw that threshold but you're right. It is an interesting question.
Mattimore: Yeah, so I think this leads right into the Gaia hypothesis because that seems to be the main alternate Theory, aside from this process occurring randomly like as Dawkins would have it. So I guess to just explain briefly to people who are listening the Gaia hypothesis basically states that humans all life, everything on Earth is essentially. Maintaining itself through one collective process and I don't know if that's a good way of explaining it, but basically it's almost it doesn't quite go as far as to say the Earth is conscious but it does say that the Earth maintains its own order so that it continues to be habitable for life and to me like as someone who you know, just loves Alan Watts and loves thinking about the bigger picture versus the smaller picture.
Scientists for many decades centuries. They would always look at things on a smaller and smaller scale like what are the building blocks that are smaller and smaller and trying to find like a bottom-up approach but there's no real good reason to think that it's a bottom-up approach where it's like quanta control everything anymore than planets control anything.
It's like they're all sort of just different scales. So the idea that we are all part of the Earth, in the same way that apple trees are part of the earth. And the only thing that's really different about us is that we're not bound to the ground through our roots we can walk around and we can even take a canned version of Earth's atmosphere in the form of a spaceship off of Earth and go on a little vacation, but then some pretty bad things happen to our biological system and we got to come back to Mother Earth.
I think it makes a ton of sense to me. To say that Earth in the same way that we are conscious in the same way that I would argue. My dogs are conscious and other beings on that Earth itself is maintaining order so that it can continue to be habitable for life. So I guess my question to you is I think first it's important to see how does the scientific community view this and then how do you view this?
Michael Kipp: Yeah, so there's a lot there. I think a good place to start tackling that question is where you began, which is the notion that there is some regulation of Earth's state biological climatic just general planetary state by the living aspects of it. This is the foundation of this guy a hypothesis that was really shaped on put forth by James Lovelock few decades ago, but it's been reshaped and wrestled with by many people since because it's a challenging idea.
I think instead of actually trying to pin an actual teleological that is a purpose-driven. So that was one of the biggest knocks against the hypothesis in the first place is the vets and on scientific approach to say that there is an end me cause it's it's not a testable hypothesis.
Therefore we. We have no place considering it scientifically, but if you disregard that aspect of it and you just say is the earth regulating itself as a planet, we clearly know that like we've discussed before there is a maintenance of these habitable conditions throughout Earth's history by some mechanisms. Now people debate over what they are whether they are these geological mechanism these biological these pure luck astronomical happenstance that we're in the right place at the right time clearly some sequence of events led the Earth to be continuously inhabited for billions of years. An interesting way of looking at that is it's sort of repurposed version of this. This guy hypothesis idea actually which took a similar name there in a paper a couple years ago, which refers to this threshold or this bottleneck basically in which planets either develop life or they don't. For reasons like we discussed like on the early Earth if the conditions were in conducive to life was there liquid water was that maintained was there energy source protection from harmful radiation this and that.
And then whatever happens on that planet whether it gets life or not, it needs to then. Undergo a billions of years long planetary history and it will either regulate its climate in such a way that it stays inhabited or it won't and basically like Mars for instance. There may have been many planets that had the right conditions for Life. Perhaps even had life on them. Perhaps even had flourishing life on them, but didn't maintain those conditions for billions of years. Whereas only some like the Earth do in fact maintain it and so in that sense the only planets that would sustain life for a long time by definition sort of would had to have had mechanisms in place to regulate their climate their planetary State what have you and so that almost gives way to this emergence of whatever you would like to call it some set of regulatory pathways that basically keep planets inhabited and yes, it clearly plays an important role in it and understanding better how those actually played out in Earth's past is is one of the important things that needs to be done to actually see how much that applies to other clans.
Mattimore: And and I read the the book by James Lovelock after I think you actually were the one who initially. May have recommended it to me some like four years ago or something, but there's very good evidence that he notes in the book that is pretty compelling. Like for instance the fact that the level of salinity of salt in the ocean has stayed at about three point four percent for as long as we've pretty much been measuring it even though it should be much saltier by now based on our calculation.
So something's going on where the solid is being deposited in a way so that it doesn't get too salty so that it's it's bad for life. There's also evidence as far as temperature levels where the temperature of the Earth's ocean has never been too hot or too cold since life began and it seems like there is some self-regulating process almost like a thermostat in your apartment where basically if the Earth is to colds like after the Ice Age.
More organic more or more organisms that that emit CO2 like humans come onto the scene to sort of warm it up a little bit. Likewise, if it's becoming too hot then they have more like trees that come on and cool it down a little bit. So it seems like the evidence is that it's not evolving at random and it seems like it would be way too lucky for us to have made it this far.
Michael Kipp: You know, there's no doubt that there are these regulatory mechanisms. And in fact, actually the most famous one that is basically textbook knowledge at this point relates to the regulation of Earth's temperature on geological time scales that is on greater than million year so up to billion year time skills.
And this is through what we call the carbonate silicate weathering feedback. What this basically means is that. the Earth's greenhouse effect today is dominated by CO2 carbon dioxide more CO2 in the atmosphere means stronger greenhouse effect warmer climate less CO2 colder climate and if we were to maintain long-term stasis in the climate system, then what we need is a mechanism that keeps CO2 just like you're saying it like a thermostat keeps it at the right level and again few decades ago actually after Lovelock wrote that book this was proposed basically as a mechanism for regulating CO2, which is that when you have higher CO2 levels and warmer climates you actually are able to more effectively whether the crust of the earth, which is a sink that it takes up CO2. Basically, it consumes CO2. And so you're drawing CO2 down from the atmosphere more effectively when you have more of it in the atmosphere and that gets actually buried in Marine sediments and I can ultimately actually get recycled back into Earth's mantle so away from the crust even and then, likewise the flip side of that is true where when you have colder climates in you're actually consuming less CO2 during weathering and just very simple models originally show that this could explain stability in carbon dioxide levels on long time scales and still to this day is thought to actually be the dominant mechanism that keeps Earth inhabited whereas other planets perhaps that do not have that sort of a feedback in place, which are unable to basically put that carbon out of the atmosphere and into the cross-channel Millie ultimately the mantle perhaps like Venus, they will reach a runaway state where they can't sustain life anymore because they've gotten too far to one extreme Venus is case too much CO2 and it's too hot.
Mattimore: So it seems like a. Scientific theory that has a decent amount of evidence. There's a lot of reasons to believe that this is a theory worth exploring more. I think part of why it's so controversial is how it relates to global climate change and what humans should or should not do in response to that, so, even James Lovelock himself has sort of hinted at the fact that Earth is. Maintaining its own Stacy's for life's habitability. Therefore. We don't really need to do much in the way of changing what's happening, especially when you consider the fact that we ourselves are the Earth. We are earthlings. We are the process by which the Earth maintains its stasis therefore to think that it's like, oh we're destroying the Earth is almost a weird question or weird statement to have because it's like well, we are the Earth. We are the mechanism by which Earth maintains itself, and I you know some interesting thoughts around that...
One thing is yeah, maybe the Earth is optimizing for habitability of life and it's maintaining that habitability. But some forms of life go extinct like the dinosaurs and humans might go extinct and then it might be the age of the Cockroach for thousands of years. And then something else might happen that we wouldn't some new crazy species like super intelligent cockroach overlords that you know can see through walls or you know, who knows so that's another interesting point.
And then the final point I'll make is that it almost seems similar to me to the Sam Harris argument where there's no free will. Where it's almost kind of like look this is happening regardless. It's almost kind of like a like a hive mind where yes, we all have a sense. Like we all can recognize that there are different ways that it seems like we could have done things.
But in reality there are no there's you only could have done things the way that you end up doing them given all of the conditions in the environment. So like for instance if I was to ask you to think of a vegetable. So like what vegetable did you just think of. Asparagus? So why did you think of asparagus?
Did you eat that last night or something? No, so yeah. So for whatever reason that's unbeknownst to you you thought of asparagus so to say that you had the free will to think of some obscure vegetable like jicama, like, what does that even mean? Like, oh I had the free will to think it's like things are we're sort of along for the ride and we can analyze things in 2020 retrospect but it doesn't seem like we have free will in the sense that many other situations can have happened given the same set of conditions. So it's yeah, it's a tricky one. I mean, it's it's almost like a circular and the I don't know how to get out of this philosophical, circular motion.
Michael Kipp: It is a dangerous loop I again to get back to what you began that point with the I think it's a dangerous loop to find ourselves in when it comes to discussing action related to a changing climate in which we live because like you said you can throw out these statements like all the Earth regulates its climate and all humans are just one of many species.
Doesn't the Earth take care of itself hasn't been maintained habitable condition for itself and for humans and so why do we need to do anything actively to manage the climate? To that, I guess I have to two points I would make the first is that it is true that the Earth, it's not being destroyed as a is a planet by humans.
We are what we're doing is we're making the environment perhaps very unlivable for us. We're also very unlivable for many other organisms unfortunately that are species that are going extinct at an alarming rate, but that's not to say that the Earth does not have the resilience to recover from the infection of humans.
It very likely does it's actually seen probably much worse in terms of mass extinctions at least maybe I shouldn't speak too soon. But in any case what we're concerned with is is my second point is maintaining a climate and an environment that's livable for us because really what matters here and so when we talk about actively managing climate or caring about, you know, seeing to the future being the most clement and least extreme sort of climate and weather regime that we could enact we were doing so because we want to continue human civilization as we understand it. We don't want to be faced with a sort of climate crisis or something like that. And so I think yeah what we're doing there is not, again, the planet that is in the fact that this idea that the planet would some disintegrator something if we weren't watching out for it's rather to make sure things like air quality is not so bad that we can't breathe when the drought is not so severe that people can't have water for the fires aren't so bad that they impinge on human crops and civilization and societies that weather events aren't so extreme that they flood major cities things like that.
Mattimore: And what do you make of the what do you make of the fact that some humans have in their deepest hearts this we need and desire to protect the environment and to combat the efforts of the oil and coal Industries and to really be these these Warriors against global climate change and for the habitability of the planet specifically as you say for humans and other creatures that we find lovable like dogs and cats and while other human beings like Scott Pruett just couldn't give a shit. I mean it's it because if we are all earthlings so it's an interesting dynamic where some earthlings are very for changing the climate in a way that's beneficial to us and others just don't care in what direction it changes and they just they just want to make a short-term profit and they don't really care what happens.
Michael Kipp: Yeah, it seems to be a philosophical divide of really what you identify with as what is it that you want to perpetuate and so whatever your answer to that question is will dictate perhaps your view on what you're willing to think and do about the future of the climate. And so if the priority is simply looking at business as usual and human progression as we understand it.
Then you could conceivably look past climate on the other hand, if you actually look into long-term perspective and you simply are again even just acting out of selfishness for yourself and for a larger business or economic entity you then at that point might need to take into effect climate because you realize that that's the world you will have to live in and decades to centuries and then in the most extreme case, maybe there's a detachment of perpetuating oneself and one's own species even where you see people part of an environmental movement that is almost if not ahuman almost anti-human in the sense of it. Views our effects on the environment as deleterious and says that perhaps what the Earth is trying to do is in fact do away with us and it will come up with some other biological experiments after we're gone. So there's a whole Spectrum. I think it comes down to people picking something that they want to perpetuate to put their energy into continuing.
Mattimore: But maybe they don't even pick it consciously. It's just part of their nature that's bestowed upon them by Mother Earth or whatever and they just sort of see how it plays out.
Michael Kipp: In that since it is interesting to you know, everyone is in many respects to the product of his or her environment. And so. Yeah, what do I think you hit the nail on the head of the interesting thing? The telling thing will be the what actually emerges and takes place on the planetary scale and that's really the interesting question that we're after here is what is the future of not just human life on the planet and not just the climate of the planet but the future of all life on under her what is it biological Planet? What will it look like in a hundred a thousand a million 1 billion years.
Mattimore: Yeah, so that's the perfect segue. I think so we've talked about how Earth came to be. We've talked about how Earth has developed both as far as Evolution and as far as Mankind's influence specifically on the earth now, let's move into how we think the Earth or what evidence there is for how the Earth will develop going forward from now until Earth ceases to exist and you know part two is going to focus on humans that have left Earth and what might happen to civilizations beyond planet Earth but there's reason to believe that for as long as Earth is habitable, there's going to be some cohort of humans that will stay on the earth for as long as we're around. So I guess like first and just the most high-level broad strokes, how do you see the earth going from where it is now until it's inevitable destruction.
Michael Kipp: Well, it's a very difficult question to answer and so I will take the easy way out and discuss the things that we can't avoid that simply programmed into the type of planet and solar system that we live on and in so for one thing will maybe we can work backwards.
The end of the Earth as we know it today is the beautiful, moist wet dry warm cold basically diverse and inhabited and clement environment. Do we have today will come to an end inevitably at some point within on the order of 4 to 5 billion years now, it's quite a long time. It's about the age of the Earth itself, but that will be marked by these stage in our star's evolution when the sun actually expands to the point where it encroaches on and eventually engulfs the Earth as it did the diameter is some drastically expands so that we have, you know, a few billion years until we get to that point to say what happens between now and then it would be wildly speculative, but we can work a ways back from that and basically say that okay, what do we know about where the climate is headed geologically speaking in what context do we exist? let's let's jump right of it shorter. Let's jump to million your time skills here in the last like I said before 2 million years. We've been in these glacial interglacial cycles that oscillate right that are basically enabled by these small Wiggles in the Earth's Tilt. Basically as it is it spins this obliquity procession and basically can give rise to these massive climatic changes and we have no reason to suspect that. Those would not continue with some regularity. If we left everything untouched if we didn't start changing the thermostat basically now the question is have we changed the thermostat enough or have we pushed enough buttons that it's not going to keep doing that in the next million years some people actually think actually maybe a lot of people think that it is too late. At least for the next ice age by some calculations now that it's an incredibly difficult thing to do but in state-of-the-art climate models that account for the fate of all the carbon we've injected into the atmosphere. It seems like it is enough already that we have basically done away with the next ice age in that cycle.
Now that wouldn't take place for tens of thousands of years anyways, but under business as usual or even an ameliorated emissions scenario. It's very conceivable. If not likely that okay. That is a climatic change would faith.
Mattimore: Yeah, I have here that in the next fifty thousand years. That's when the next glacial period is predicted to occur. Assuming we already admitted enough CO2 to prevent that from happening.
Michael Kipp: Yes. So that's really the big question is what is the fate of the CO2 that we have already put in the atmosphere? And so just just for reference the last ice age the amount of CO2 the partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 180 parts per million then rapidly in a matter of few thousand years that number shot up to 260 to 280 parts per million and that change of 80 to a hundred parts per million was enough to get us from the glacial climate to the Holocene basically the sort of climate in which we live or what we call the pre-industrial climate then so that that took thousands of years, that was a natural sequence of events that was induced by these orbital variations and Amplified by these feedbacks involved in greenhouse gas levels like CO2. Now keep that number in mind 182 280 because so 280 was about the level of CO2 in the atmosphere when humans started industrializing this is into the 1800s and if you were to go today out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and do what actually is being done every single day that has been happening for decades now measuring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. You'd see that it's greater than 400 parts per million. Which is larger. It's actually since 1800. We have had a larger increase already. Then the increase from the last ice age to Modern climate and we've done that in a century not a few millennia, so that's what has people concerned.
Mattimore: It's like the rate of change right now is so drastic that I mean looking out a million years, even though that's so short on the geological time scales. It's hard to imagine us not having royally screwed things up by then.
Michael Kipp: Yeah, so it's really again a matter of what it means for our own Society persisting because, yes, maybe it's true that this is a perturbation the magnitude relative to the time. It's just created a situation that's very hard for humans to live in because it's very hard for us to predict what exactly it's going to do to the climate system. This is the ongoing challenge of climate science today and the reason why we have such things as the intergovernmental panel on climate change that brings together mines people across every continent, countries putting together the most comprehensive model we can of the way the climate system behaves and we still can't quite agree on what the fate of the temperature of the sea level on this and that will be on the one hand because we don't know what humans will do in terms of how it will change your behavior or not. But on the other hand because of unknowns and how the climate system actually operates. So, it's almost easier to look at the very long term. And make project projections about like we are saying the next ice age. Will it come or not? That's almost an easier calculation than saying how much sea level rise or how much temperature increase by 2100.
Mattimore: So I know we're running a little short on time. So I want to get into the worst-case best-case and most likely scenarios for how the Earth and how life on Earth will develop from now until. Until it for sure is going to be gone, so one, you know something that I found is that in 1 billion years, the sun's Luminosity will have increased by 10% so that the average temperature on Earth will be a hundred seventeen degrees Fahrenheit, which will lead to the world's oceans evaporating away and some of the last pockets of life would be in the polls where like the last bits of water might be trapped.
So. Let's say a billion years is the end of you know, no pretty much no matter what we do. That's when the Earth all life on Earth is going to be gone. So looking at you know, considering that and then considering let's say in the year 2045, that's the year that Ray Kurzweil predicts the singularity will occur and it's you know other AI scientists agree with that sort of a time frame which is pretty much exactly double our lifespan, you know you're only 25. Okay, so it's well for me, it's double my life span will be when the singularity is predicted to occur in the year 2045. So let's say let's take those as the two big ends like the beginning in the end because I think those really are two of the biggest parameters.
What do you think? Let's start with the worst case scenario worst-case scenario.
Michael Kipp: Again, since I'm in no position to speculate on the technological aspect of this worst-case scenario in terms of climate system, basically what people this is actually an exercise that's done by the intergovernmental panel on climate change from they put together their.
Projections they have they don't necessarily call them best case worst case, but they have these various scenarios basically relating to the extent to which we do or do not change our level of carbon emissions. So in the worst case scenarios that they consider viable they feature not just in crito and not just a maintenance of the amount of CO2.
The mission that we have today, but actually an increase as more countries grow their economies and develop so on so that features pretty dramatic temperature changes and sea-level changes even by the end of the century. Now, yeah, the the numbers of which I don't personally can't conjure up off the top of my head.
But what we're talking about there is a few degrees Celsius, difference which may not sound like much globally averaged that what that would mean for the for Humanity. I think would come down to more Regional effects again. So like we're already seen with drought in some parts of the world Water Resources being a very important piece of the puzzle and sea level rising large cities that are very close to the sea, level Venice, New York Amsterdam. New Orleans the astonishing proportion of the world's population not just in those cities I mentioned but in many developing countries in fact lives within 10 meters or many huge proportion within a hundred meters of sea level. And so those are vulnerable spots. So worst case is we continue carbon emissions being fact increased them, with time and we steadily increase the temperature and the climate and we acidify the ocean and it becomes increasingly unlivable for humans. But when the crisis point is, I don't know.
Mattimore: Yeah, I mean even like I seen that all of the Hawaiian Islands will be submerged Under the Ocean 80 million years from now.
By that time all of the Grand Canyon will have basically eroded away. I mean, it's amazing how much how much things change once you look on those larger time scales, but for me the worst case scenario would be a much more near term catastrophe. So, I mean obviously at any given point nuclear war can lead to the end of humanity at any given point, a rogue black hole could come and destroy all of us. What by the way would we have any way of noticing a black hole if it was about to get us and we pretty much couldn't do anything.
Michael Kipp: Well, I to my knowledge not master physicists. Hope we are able to detect the presence of such things and it seems that it seems unlikely that we would be so to speak attacked by one let alone, intentionally brought to an end at the hands of a black hole. So that one I think we're in career safe on rye speak too soon.
Mattimore: Okay. Well that's good to know. I've also read that the reversal of Earth's magnetic fields is a possibility.
Michael Kipp: Yes an interesting question. So like we discussed before the fact that Earth has a magnetic field is very important for persistence of life on the surface it protects us from the solar wind these charged energetic particles that are being hurled towards our planet by the sun. If we were to just have no magnetic field then. Well, not only be harmful to us the creatures in the form of basically high-energy particles hitting us inducing mutations, perhaps leading to higher incidence rates of cancers and these sorts of things it would also wreak havoc on our telecommunications network. So the reason people are concerned about these reversals is that there are these known events in Earth's past. Where in fact our magnetic field, which. Like all magnets is a polar entity as a north and a South Pole are as being a dipole.
So it is basically a linear field vector and there are times in their past, but we know that the orientation was actually the opposite of what it is today and you can actually see on the seafloor these clear vertical stripes. Of looking at older and older seafloor and the magnetization of these iron-bearing minerals in there actually not perfectly regular but on some intervals flips back and forth and back and forth.
So, you know, there's this possibility of the magnetic field can reverse and when doing so, it's likely that it would not be instantaneous in a human time frame that is to say, you know split seconds and so how whatever the time frame of that transition would be it might lead to a time where our protective magnetic field was not stable or even present and so we would be perhaps at the whim of some stellar and Cosmic radiation at that point.
Mattimore: So that might not be the worst case scenario given that it takes a while for it to come onto the scene. So it seems like okay some other possibilities for worst case scenario a nearby Supernova a gamma ray burst. Aliens destroying us once we achieve the singularity because at that point we actually become somewhat of a threat to them an asteroid hitting us a global academic epidemic nuclear war, I mean, these are all possibilities. So, I don't know which one is necessarily the worst. I mean, I think in a lot of cases you could make the argument for either aliens or AI destroying us being the worst because they could do crazy technological things like create simulations where we live and torturous hell for all eternity in multiple instances of our consciousness, but that's not the most likely so next, I think that's just briefly go over the best case scenario. So for me, I guess I'll start off the best case scenario would be. We passed through the singularity with flying colors. So in the year 2045 or sometime thereabouts, we are able to effectively merge biotech with infotech such that we are able to affect our future to a degree that has never been possible before and with that emergence of Technology, we're able to solve a lot of the problems that were talking about. So we're able to, basically help the Earth and this may go back to the Gaia hypothesis. Maybe Gaia has been planning all along for us to become smart enough that we merge with machines that we can really help maintain a beneficial future for Earth and and for all of life in the long-term and through that technology, we're able to prevent catastrophes like asteroids were able to reverse global warming were able to predict when magnetic shift is about to happen were able to map out all of the rogue black holes all of the you know, solar flares or gamma ray bursts or supernovas or anything else that could potentially be an existential threat and because of that we're able to maintain life up until at least until let's say 800 million years from now, which is you know from from what I've read is basically at the point at which all complex life must die because photosynthesis will no longer be possible based on where the sun will be at that time. So I think for me that's the best case scenario where we are able to survive for 800 million years leveraging AI.
Michael Kipp: I think it's pretty hard to talk those things you laid out there. I was going to settle for a much milder better best case which basically would just mean that we actually reduce our environmental impact to the point where it is sustainable for our persistence, which is essentially what you were getting at. So, let's say you said it better than I.
Mattimore: So let's do the most likely and that'll be one of the last things we discuss. So for me the most likely would be something actually actually kind of similar to your best case scenario, which is that we're able to but actually maybe not quite as optimistic as your best case scenario.
So let's say that. We are able to take the appropriate steps to combat the worst effects of global climate change so that Earth maintains habitability, but we're not able to do this forever. We basically delay the impacts of climate change and eventually it is going to be catastrophic maybe not for All Humans, but for many humans and for many other life-forms and that basically, we're going to come to a situation where the elite the global Elite and maybe even upper middle class. Like, you know, we'll see how many people are able to to adopt this system, but there will be some sort of new system where just like how in Saudi Arabia you can go skiing in these indoor air conditioned artificially constructed Mega complexes. There will be artificially constructed Mega complexes that are able to basically keep out any of the adverse effects of climate change increased radiation pollution bad air quality, whatever else and that yeah, the whole Earth won't be doing great, but we'll have these bastions of hope in the form of mega complexes that are essentially their own ecosystem that have been designed in a similar way to what we would consider the ideal ecosystem for Earth.
Michael Kipp: I would take that as the most likely case in the long long run right on that. Sorry. It is most like I would take that I would be happy with that being actually the most likely case in the long
Mattimore: Run.You think I'm too optimistic? What I the only thing I would add is that in the near term.
Michael Kipp: I think given the just the way it's gone in the past with the rhetoric and the relationship between the presentation of new evidence for the status of the changing climate versus the level of action taken.
Short of an astonishing change of character. It's setting us up for basically not a pleasant transition, but rather forcing us in the form of a some sort of Crisis what scale? I don't know but I think it will take some sort of a wake-up call to actually get to a point where we begin to truly curb our environmental footprint such as it affects ourselves, so I would hope that it's not something so severe as something that would take a bite out of the human population worldwide, but I do think it will take some sort of very difficult situation basically to instigate that.
Mattimore: I mean even in the year 2042 we're supposed to reach 9 billion people and I think I read some study that says that with our current resources, we can't support more than maybe 10 billion or something thereabouts. So we're going to have to answer some serious questions and overcome some serious challenges. Even before the climate, you know starts to kill everyone and once climate starts to kill some significant portion of the population, then that's going to lead to Wars and strife and other conflicts and so that you know, some people may opt to go and live on mars or live on the giant space station or live in one of these bastions of you know ecological ideal conditions. So I think that's a good sort of way to cap it off because next episode is when we're going to talk about the future of life beyond Earth and that's going to explore all of the near term medium term and long term ways that we are going to leave this planet in search for other planets how we're going to terraform Mars potentially and what what could happen there space tourism also, The Fermi Paradox, why aren't there any other intelligent life forms out there given how many given that there's more stars just in our solar system than there are, you know grains of sand on earth like it seems crazy that there are no other intelligent life out there, so what's going on there and how does Life as a whole develop? In the worst-case best-case and most likely case odd infinite Tunes. So even beyond Earth, let's say we could even go beyond the billion years that Earth will be around or be habitable for life. So these are all going to be topics that we're going to be discussing on the next episode of hence the age of podcast.
Thank you all so much for listening. Thank you Kipp for being honest being a guest on the podcast and we look forward to recording the next episode.
All right. Thank you guys for listening.
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Mattimore and Justin