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Global warming: is it time to panic?

Eleanor Young

Eleanor Young takes the view from space and wonders what it will take for us to take climate change seriously

It seems hard to believe that it was only in 1972 that we first saw the whole earth as a lonely green and blue ball floating in space. The Blue Marble picture, captured en route to the moon, has become iconic. 

From the busy space of the thermosphere, where satellites orbit in temperatures of up to 2400ºC, there have now been many more images. From those satellites, NASA’s time lapse images have captured the polar ice caps retreating. Soon we will be looking at earth from satellites in the familiar flame tones of thermal imaging as one company, Satellite Vu, launches eight satellites with high definition thermal imaging. HOTSAT-1 reached orbit in June after its (no doubt carbon-costly) rocket launch. 

Last month Leeds City Council took part in a pilot for this satellite imaging that will eventually spy out leaky homes from 500km into space. It plans to use the data to help with its £16.8 million Net Zero Homes plan to upgrade dwellings. It will also help build bids for grants to fund more of this work. If only leaky homes could also be fixed en masse from space; perhaps an insulation zapper would do the trick.

A massive injection of capital from central government would also be welcome. This seemed to be on the horizon, possibly at next election, with Labour’s promise of £28 billion a year for its Climate Investment Pledge – some of which was intended for insulation and retrofitting. It would have also aided newbuilds with plans to make British-made steel carbon neutral. But the current economic mess has seen shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves step back from commitment.

If only leaky homes could also be fixed en masse from space; perhaps an insulation zapper would do the trick

It is not the time to go soft on carbon targets. While the UK basks in another hot summer spell, the weather around the world has all the warning signs of climate change – with the eight hottest years on record in the last eight years. Meanwhile the global prediction of the National Centers of Environmental Information in the United States is that this year will also be hot enough to join the record books, a reflection of the impact of record highs of the big three greenhouse gases – methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. 

The orange glow, taste of smoke and airway clogging particles taking over Boston and New York from Canadian wildfires over 1,000 miles across the border has been widely reported. But on the West Coast of the US wildfire smogs are now becoming a regular occurrence, with authorities urging residents to buy mechanical filters and set up clean air spaces in their houses – a kind of panic room to retreat to when the threat of climate change gets too much. 

The question of action is becoming a hotter topic. Can we get to insulation, rocket-fuelled or otherwise, before we start needing to retrofit our homes with climate panic rooms?