At some point, as has happened in the past, a huge asteroid will be headed for Earth, threatening the planet with indescribable damage. That point could come within days or it could take centuries. And Hollywood theorizing aside, it’s not clear what we might do about it.
Last week’s meteor over Russia and the larger asteroid later that day spurred the normally laconic House Science committee to action. Newly elected committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) suggested that the event was “a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science.” From a committee statement:
[Smith said:] “Developing technology and research that enable us to track objects like Asteroid 2012 DA14 is critical to our future. We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth.” …
The Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to examine ways to better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth.
It probably goes without saying that this is the same “science” committee that has excelled at downplaying and ignoring the science of another, less science-fictiony threat: climate change.
When he assumed the committee chairmanship, Smith — who once gave media outlets an ironic award for ignoring “dissenting opinions” on global warming — suggested that the committee would shortly hold hearings on climate change to “focus on the facts.” Meaning, obviously, to let those “dissenting opinions” have a seat at a table in the Capitol and question climate science.
Now, I understand that movies about asteroids threatening Earth star people like Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, and Ben Affleck, and that the one climate change movie starred (sigh) Dennis Quaid and (siiiiiiigh) Jake Gyllenhall, but I would nonetheless offer that science research and funding should 1) not be a function of trendiness and 2) should maybe reflect actual scientific threats. An extinction-level asteroid rolls around every billion years, and one hit in the Yucatan only 66 million years ago. Climate change on the other hand? Happening currently.
So why focus on the infinitesimal risk of asteroid strike and ignore the very real risk of climate change, a risk cited as “high” by the Government Accountability Office last week? Well, because Smith is a Republican, and because Smith is from Texas, and because of which industries each of those issues affects.
Respecting the science of climate change means tackling the oil and gas industry, an industry that has contributed half a million dollars to Smith over his career. While such donations don’t necessarily result in votes (they really don’t, guys), they are a very good way to track relationships. Smith has friends in the oil industry; he could hardly be a congressmember from Texas if he did not. Asteroid fighting, on the other hand, means directing shitloads of money to the defense and aerospace industries — an industry which sends billions to Smith’s home state and which is always a safe bet for Republican obeisance.
If Lamar Smith had his way, the government would spend millions over the next few decades developing new systems for asteroid detection and annihilation which would float above our heads for centuries, ready just in case. Meanwhile, the Texas coast (and the New York coast and the Florida coast and the Louisiana coast and so on) will move a few hundred meters inland, and the state of Texas will see increased, more drastic droughts, according to Smith’s employer.
The National Review‘s Andrew Stuttaford neatly summarized Smith’s approach to science (as spotted by Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum):
We waste a fortune on measures (that will have no impact for decades, if ever) to tamper with the climate. Some of that money would be better spent on asteroid insurance.
Just don’t ask better for whom.