NASA successfully crashed a robotic spacecraft into an asteroid this week, a first-of-its-kind test of technology that could prevent a comet or asteroid from hitting the Earth, though the chances of such a catastrophe are low. We speak with NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who calls the successful mission “bittersweet.” “We’re doing these amazing missions like redirecting asteroids, and yet with all that technology, with all that knowledge, somehow it’s not translating into stopping what is clearly the biggest threat facing humanity, which is global heating,” says Kalmus.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn from a climate activist to a climate scientist who is an activist, as well. On Monday, NASA successfully crashed a robotic spacecraft into an asteroid in a first-of-its-kind test of technology that could one day, perhaps, prevent a comet or asteroid from hitting the Earth. Mission engineers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory erupted in cheers Monday as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, known as DART, live-streamed its final moments plunging toward the asteroid Dimorphos at 14,000 miles per hour. The event was carried live on NASA TV.
LORI GLAZE: Oh wow!
SAMSON REINY: Awaiting visual confirmation.
LORI GLAZE: All right! We got it?
SAMSON REINY: Waiting.
LORI GLAZE: Waiting. Come on.
SAMSON REINY: And we have impact!
LORI GLAZE: And we’ve done it!
SAMSON REINY: A giant leap for humanity in the name of planetary defense.
AMY GOODMAN: Astronomers will observe Dimorphos and the much larger asteroid it orbits to see how DART deflected their paths through space. NASA hopes to prove that, given enough warning, it will be able to nudge an Earth-bound comet or asteroid off course, averting a catastrophe.
The Earth is constantly peppered by small meteorites that fall harmlessly over remote areas, but rarely much larger rocks fall on human settlements. On February 15th, 2013, an asteroid the size of a house entered the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk in Russia, a city of more than a million people. The resulting meteor exploded with the force of a nuclear bomb 14 miles above the ground, leaving a brilliant streak of fire across the morning sky. The meteor’s shock wave shattered windows, blew doors off hinges, injured more than 1,600 people, mostly from broken glass. No deaths were reported. NASA hopes to one day be able to prevent a similar — or much worse — disaster, although the odds of a catastrophic impact remain vanishingly small.
As the DART mission draws the world’s attention to threats from outer space, NASA scientists continue to warn about threats right here on Earth. Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tweeted, “It’s great that NASA is testing the ability to deflect an asteroid or comet if necessary, but the actual clear and present danger to humanity is of course Earth breakdown from burning fossil fuels. #DontLookUp,” unquote.
Well, for more, Peter Kalmus joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Peter. We realize you’re strictly speaking on your own behalf, not in a professional capacity. It’s great to have you with us. You’ve been arrested protesting. So, make the links to what the world was watching around this DART hitting asteroid and what you feel we should be focusing on.
PETER KALMUS: Yeah, Amy. Well, you know, I am a space nerd. I loved science fiction when I was a kid. I love what NASA does. And this mission was a technological tour de force. I mean, it was just amazing, what they did.
Just for me, it felt kind of like what you could call a Don’t Look Up moment. You know, we’re such an incredible species. We can do these amazing things. We can redirect asteroids. We can get prepared for a potential asteroid that could take out a city. You know, those might come to Earth around one per thousand years or so. So, it’s not a bad thing to be prepared for that. But it just feels so weird to me, as a climate scientist, that we can do all this amazing stuff, and yet we’re still careening headlong into climate catastrophe.
And I keep yelling at the top of my lungs. I’m risking arrest. I’ve been forced to become a climate activist, because I’ve got two kids. You know, I’m terrified of the inaction of world leaders, who keep dancing around the real issue, right? Which is we have to rapidly ramp down the fossil fuel industry. That’s what’s causing this. And yet they keep wanting to expand the fossil fuel industry.
So, it’s just — it’s a bittersweet thing. We’re finding exoplanets. We’re doing these amazing missions like redirecting asteroids, and yet with all that technology, with all that knowledge, somehow it’s not translating into stopping what is clearly the biggest threat facing humanity, which is global heating.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Peter, in April, you were arrested for chaining yourself to a JPMorgan bank in Los Angeles, California, to protest fossil fuel investments and climate inaction. Explain what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan, we actually have a clip of that moment. Let’s go to it.
PETER KALMUS: So, I’m here because scientists are not being listened to. I’m willing to take a risk for this gorgeous planet and for my sons. And we’ve been trying to warn you guys for so many decades that we’re heading towards a [bleep] catastrophe, and we’ve been being ignored. The scientists in the world have been being ignored. And it’s got to stop. We’re going to lose everything. … We have to stop this fossil fuel industry. We have to stop the financing of fossil fuels. We have to stop new fossil fuel projects.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You in April. Could you explain what happened after that? And also, what’s been the reaction within NASA by your colleagues to your activism?
PETER KALMUS: Yeah. So, on April 4th, the IPCC released its Working Group III report, which said the very obvious, which is that this is caused by the fossil fuel industry and that we have to stop expanding the fossil fuel industry.
And yet world leaders, including this administration, keep calling for expansion of the fossil fuel industry — Joe Manchin, Chuck Schumer, the Mountain Valley Pipeline. You know, they both received about $300,000 this election cycle to fund that pipeline. So, there is huge pressure. There’s corruption from the fossil fuel industry, controlling politicians with basically legalized bribery to expand the fossil fuel industry, which is taking us completely in the wrong direction.
And the science is so clear, right? Eighty percent of global heating is caused by burning fossil fuels. Most of the rest is animal agriculture. We have to stop that; otherwise, all of the things that we’re seeing — the hurricanes, the fires, the flooding, heat waves, increasingly crop yield losses and declines and increasing food prices, which — I mean, none of this will stop until we ramp down the fossil fuel industry.
This is not a new normal; this is an escalator towards basically a hellish planet that we’re leaving not just for young people and kids, but increasingly for ourselves. People are dying more and more from climate-related catastrophes today. And, you know, what really frightens me is that there are some thresholds, for example, deadly humid heat, which we’re approaching, right? And we’re just going to go through those thresholds. I think it’s going to feel like there’s not a lot of deaths from heat waves, until suddenly, in a matter of a few years, there are huge heat waves with millions of people dying, causing blackouts and mass death. And we’re going to wonder: How did this happen so fast?
AMY GOODMAN: You know, Peter Kalmus, NASA’s massive new budget-busting, multibillion-dollar moon rocket has just been delayed again, this time, ironically, because of Hurricane Ian’s approach. Can you talk about climate change and hurricanes? I mean, I was watching the National Weather Service, one of the top guys there yesterday saying, “I don’t want to talk about climate change right now.”
PETER KALMUS: Yeah, no, there is a pretty clear link. I think your earlier guests did a great job talking about it. I mean, more than 90%, around 93%, of the excess energy that’s coming into the planet, relative to what’s going out, because of increasing greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is going into the ocean. And that excess heat in the ocean is a major power for — it’s the engine for hurricanes, and the warmer atmosphere, from Clausius-Clapeyron. So, warmer air just holds more water vapor. It’s basic physics. And that’s leading to increased rainfall, increased flooding. And then, of course, you have the higher sea level, that Bill McKibben was talking about, which increases damage from storm surges. So, all of this together means we are going to expect more and more damage from hurricanes in the future.
And again, that’s just one climate impact that we’re seeing from global heating. You take all of these together, and it’s just like taking gut punch after gut punch, you know, to our civilization. You push against a wall, and every day you increase the force against that wall, eventually the wall is going to collapse. I mean, it can’t help it. So, that’s what really worries me, is, like, this isn’t a new normal, this is a trend, and every year things are getting worse. So we have to end the fossil fuel industry, and we have to do it in an equitable way, both domestically and internationally.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter, I didn’t get your response to the second part of my question earlier, about the response —
PETER KALMUS: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — both by your colleagues in NASA and also your supervisors to your activism?
PETER KALMUS: Yes. So, so far, it has been positive. I was in jail for about eight hours after that action. And then, the next morning I had a voicemail on my phone just confirming that I had done that action on my own time. And I did. I took a vacation day. That was the only formal contact I had from NASA about that. I was quite worried that I might get fired for that action.
Since then, many of my colleagues have come up to me privately and thanked me and expressed gratitude for what I’ve done. And I would call to them to start doing similar actions, because, you know, our careers are one thing, but our kids, our young people, irreversible damage to the only place in the universe we know that has life, that’s quite something else. I mean, that really transcends our careers.
And this is the time to take a stand. I mean, getting that dirty deal out of Washington, at least temporarily — I think that government officials who want to expand fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry are starting to routinely underestimate the climate movement. And this is the time to make that movement stronger. Grassroots action, I think, is the only thing that’s going to turn this around, because the rich people in charge, they’re not going to change things just because we politely ask them.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kalmus, we want to thank you so much for being with us, climate activist, NASA climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, again, speaking in his own personal capacity. One of his last tweets ended with the hashtag #DontLookUp, referring to that Hollywood blockbuster movie about scientists who try to warn the world that a comet is on a direct collision course with the Earth — the film, of course, an allegory for humanity’s failure to address the climate crisis. And I can’t help noticing how much Leonardo DiCaprio looks like you. Thank you, Peter.
PETER KALMUS: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Next up, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick on her new book, Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America. Back in 30 seconds.