Americans are “under siege” from misinformation about the risks of climate change, according to Nasa’s former senior scientist. Ellen Stofan, who left NASA in December, told the Guardian that despite the science being clear, many Americans were unaware of the potentially disastrous effects of prolonged carbon emissions. “We are under attack by profit-driven bogus information,” she stated, blaming oil and coal firms. Fake news is detrimental because once a thought is adopted, it is difficult to change. According to Stofan, the US scientific community has become aware of the issue and has increased attempts to connect with the public via grassroots and mainstream media. Her attendance at the Cheltenham Science Festival this week was hampered by an intensive misinformation effort. “I constantly wonder whether these individuals really believe their own foolishness. Using ambiguity and confusion to obscure and confuse people enrages me. And although “fake news” is typically blamed on right-wing media, Stofan says she sees signs of “eroding people’s capacity to examine information” across the political spectrum. “We all have a role,” she remarked. “That’s the ‘I read it on the internet therefore it must be real’ attitude.” Stofan left Nasa in December, before the US election. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I’m happy I’m not. She was glad that cutbacks to NASA’s Earth observation programme, which contributes to climate and environmental monitoring, were quite minimal, at $167m (the entire Earth science budget is currently $1.754bn). A long-time advocate of planetary science, Stofan said it presented some of the most irrefutable data that atmospheric carbon dioxide leads to a warmer climate. On Venus, which once had seas but is now a poisonous inferno with surface temperatures surpassing 500C, she compares carbon emissions to the runaway greenhouse effect. However, Venus shows the drastic changes that may occur when the delicate equilibrium of our planet’s atmosphere is upset. No trip to Venus for us, but the repercussions of increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere are grave. The Earth would become uninhabitable if humanity used up all our fossil fuels, according to certain simulations. She claimed the solution to the subject of alien life-forms now feels within grasp. Missions to collect water from Europa and Enceladus’ plumes may provide the first clues. Scientists must be creative and open-minded about how extraterrestrial life may appear — it might be sophisticated molecules without DNA, for example. Because we don’t know what possible extraterrestrial life looks like, Stofan expects any early finding would be vague and cause scientific debate. “It would be nice if when we found life simple we imagined a droplet of liquid and something swimming over it,” she remarked. This is why Stofan strongly supports a human Mars expedition, believing that a robotic rover would not be able to conclusively prove the presence of past or current life hiding under the surface. In addition to extracting soil samples from deeper than Curiosity’s few inches or ExoMars’ two metre limit, humans may do more complex scientific research. Humans might circle Mars in 20 years and reach the surface in 30. “I still believe that more samples and analyses will be required to resolve the issue,” she stated. The concept that humanity should prepare to colonise other planets, popularised by Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, was disregarded. A teacher recently informed her that her students felt the environment “doesn’t matter since we’ll all leave and live on Mars”, which worried her. First, maintain the planet livable. I don’t want us to lose sight of it.

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