From a half-century of exploring our own solar system we’ve learned a lot about planets and how they work. We know that Mars was once a habitable world with water rushing across its surface. And Venus, a planet that might have been much like Earth, was instead transformed by a runaway greenhouse effect into a hellish world of 800-degree days.
By studying these nearby planets, we’ve discovered general rules for both climate and climate change. These rules, based in physics and chemistry, must apply to any species, anywhere, taking up energy-harvesting and civilization-building in a big way. For example, any species climbing up the technological ladder by harvesting energy through combustion must alter the chemical makeup of its atmosphere to some degree. Combustion always produces chemical byproducts, and those byproducts can’t just disappear. As astronomers at Penn State recently discovered, if planetary conditions are right (like the size of a planet’s orbit), even relatively small changes in atmospheric chemistry can have significant climate effects. That means that for some civilization-building species, the sustainability crises can hit earlier rather than later.