Upon descending from his trip to the edge of space on Tuesday, Jeff Bezos, the richest person on the planet, reaffirmed his commitment to fight climate change. “We have to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future,” he told MSNBC.
Mr. Bezos says space tourism is a first step toward moving people (and heavy industry) into space to avert an energy crisis on Earth. His fellow billionaire space entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, have also said their companies are an answer to climate change: Mr. Musk wants to colonize Mars in case we ruin Earth.
Critics argue that space tourism will add to emissions rather than save the planet. But the industry is still low on the list of polluters.
The global space industry uses less than a tenth of a percent of propellant than the aviation industry does. What’s more, the amount used for rockets like those that carried Mr. Branson and Mr. Bezos to space is a tiny portion of that, said Martin Ross, a scientist at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center. In a recent study, Mr. Ross found that space tourism companies could launch as many as 10,000 suborbital flights per year before the effect of their emissions on the atmosphere would begin to approach that of orbital rockets.
It is not yet understood exactly how an increasing number of rocket launches would affect the planet. The space industry is the only direct source of emissions into the stratosphere above 20 kilometers. Particles that rockets leave behind can absorb sunlight or reflect sunlight, potentially changing the climate of the stratosphere or affecting the ozone layer.
“We know it’s not a problem now,” Mr. Ross said, “but we can’t predict how much of that up-and-down you can do before it does become a problem.”
Aside from whether space tourism will contribute to climate change, there’s skepticism over space companies’ claims that they can help address it. Some say Mr. Bezos’ vision for colonizing space isn’t feasible, and Mr. Bezos himself calls it a “long-range problem.” Billionaires going to space should first consider climate disasters on Earth, critics argue.
It’s not quite fair to say Mr. Bezos has ignored these problems. Although Amazon is a major polluter, it says it aims to go carbon neutral by 2040, and Mr. Bezos has pledged $10 billion of his personal wealth to address climate change. But some say there’s a big gap in his approaches: Are moonshots only for space?
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