The Current

'No planet B': Sending humans to Mars isn't the answer to Earth's problems, says U.K. astronomer royal

Some experts envision a mass migration to Mars could save the human race some day. But U.K. astronomer royal Martin Rees says we shouldn’t abandon the planet just yet.

Martin Rees says humans should focus on improving, regulating technology

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover in a 'selfie' made of composite images taken on the Red Planet. People like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have said mass migration away from Earth may be humanity's best hope for long-term survival. (NASA/JPL via Reuters)

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While some humans might one day live on Mars, the U.K.'s astronomer royal warns that the prospect of a mass migration to the Red Planet is a "dangerous delusion."

"I think we have to accept that there's no planet B, which can ever be made as comfortable as the Earth," Martin Rees told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"We've got to make the Earth habitable not just now, but for future centuries."

As the prospect of self-sustaining bases far away from Earth becomes more feasible, prominent figures have increasingly seized on them as a means for continued human survival.

Last March, SpaceX founder Elon Musk told an audience at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas that a Mars base would help to regenerate life on Earth after a potential World War III.

In 2017, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said humanity had 100 years to colonize other planets if we wanted to survive a myriad of obstacles, including the rising threat of climate change. 

Tesla CEO and SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk has hopes of putting humans on Mars. (Chris Carlson/Associated Press)

In late November, the United Nations Environment office issued a report warning that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 C (2.7 F) this century, emissions need to drop 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 2017 levels. A similar UN report in October was described by one of its lead authors as "a life-or-death situation."

But Rees warned that colonizing space does not offer an easy solution.

"We've got to accept that dealing with climate change, though hard, is a doddle compared to terraforming Mars," said Rees, who looks at many potential catastrophes that could end human civilization in his latest book On The Future: Prospects for Humanity.

Martin Rees is author of On The Future: Prospects for Humanity. (Princeton University Press, Nesta)

The way to do that, he suggested, is to further develop technology to provide a better life for the planet's growing population in the future.

However, how we deal with the risks and rewards associated with changing technology could determine whether we prosper or perish.

"We're already seeing this in the case of cyber [technology] — computers and computer networks are hugely beneficial to society," Rees said.

"On the other hand, we know that they enable an individual or a small group to cause widespread disruption, locking out the electricity grid in a few cities, or something like that."

This makes people vulnerable, Rees said, adding the same could soon be true of biologically engineered attacks.

"We have to worry about how we can regulate the misuse of these technologies," he said. "And that's going to be hard."

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Karin Marley.