Climate change for aliens


In February NASA astronomers discovered seven Earth-like planets, potentially harboring life, orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, not too far from Earth.

Scientists have yet to discover life, or evidence of civilizations, on these or other planets. But in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, they often categorize hypothetical worlds according to the amount of energy their inhabitants could potentially harness.

They do this using what is known as the Kardashev scale. Named in 1964 for Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, the scale takes energy use as the key indicator of a civilization’s advancement, and places those hypothetical civilizations in one of three categories:

A Type 1 civilization–still a distant goal for Earth–utilizes all of the energy that reaches its planet from its parent star (in Earth’s case, the Sun).

A Type 2 civilization is capable of using all the energy put out by its star and planetary system.

A super-advanced Type 3 civilization harnesses all the energy of its home galaxy.

The Kardashev scale has been a gold standard classification system for thinking about “exo-civilizations” for decades. It does not, however, take into account how a civilization in turn affects its planet when it gathers and uses energy.

That omission is increasingly significant as, in the half-century since Kardashev proposed his classification scheme, evidence is accumulating that our energy-intensive, industrial civilization is affecting our planet.

Given those effects, can planets and civilizations co-exist for the long haul? And if so, how?

To answer these questions, a team of researchers led by Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, devised a new classification scheme for the evolution of civilizations based on the idea that it’s not just how much energy you use, but how you use it that matters.

With this new scale, the researchers determined that in order to survive long-term, a civilization must learn to “think like a planet”–or risk the civilization’s demise.

“The Kardashev scale is concerned with extracting energy,” Frank says. “But what we’ve recognized with our classification scheme is that you can’t use energy without causing different kinds of waste. That waste feedbacks on the state of planet.”

In a paper in the journal Anthropocene, the researchers discuss this new classification system as a way of thinking about sustainability on a planetary scale.

“The discovery of seven new exoplanets orbiting the relatively close star TRAPPIST-1 forces us to rethink life on Earth,” says Marina Alberti of the University of Washington, a co-author on the paper. “It opens the possibility to broaden our understanding of planetary system dynamics and lays the foundations to explore a path to long-term sustainability.”

Earth’s biosphere–the global layer where life exists–is unique in that the presence of life has altered the planet’s surrounding atmosphere above and lithosphere below. The researchers note that rapid urbanization–including deforestation, air pollution, and increasing energy demand–has had damaging effects on the planet. Currently most of the energy on Earth comes from fossil fuels, a limited resource that puts pressure on the earth’s ecosystems.

Humans will need to find new ways of generating work from the energy they harvest in order to sustain civilization, the researchers say.

“You can’t just bring a planet to heel, you need to bring it a plan and figure out how to extract energy while also maintaining the health of the planet’s biosphere,” Frank says. “Human beings are part of the biosphere so they need to work with it in order to take the next steps in planetary evolution.”

The new classification system for planetary evolution is composed of five levels:

Class I: Planets without an atmosphere. The ability of the planet to change and evolve is severely limited. (Mercury or Earth’s moon)

Class II: Planets with atmospheres but no life forms. The flow of gases and fluids leads to change and evolution in the form of climate and weathering. (Venus and Mars)

Class III: Planets with a “thin” biosphere that might sustain some biological activity, but this does not affect the planet as a whole. There are no current examples of Class III planets. However, Earth 2.5 billion years ago, before life created the oxygen atmosphere, would have been a Class III world. If early Mars hosted life when it had liquid water on its surface then it too might have been a Class III world. Once life appears, new forms of change, evolution, and innovation become possible.

Class IV: Planets with a thick biosphere strongly affecting the flow of energy and work through the rest of the planetary systems. Planets co-evolve with their biospheres as life dominates many of the processes happening between the surface and the upper atmosphere. (Earth today)

Class V: Planets in which an energy-intensive technological species establishes a sustainable form of cooperation with the biosphere that increases the productivity of both. On these planets the civilization enhances the ability of the biosphere to innovate and evolve.

According to the researchers’ findings, Earth might reach Class V in the future if humanity successfully advances to harvest energy in forms like solar that do not harm the biosphere.

Adam Frank’s new system classifies planets based on their ability to generate free energy. This system is composed of five levels, from a Class I planet (far left) that does not have an atmosphere to a Class V planet (far right) where an energy-intensive species establishes a sustainable version of the biosphere. In this system, Earth is between a Class IV and Class V. CREDIT University illustration / Michael Osadciw


Although researchers can’t conclude that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations currently exist in our galaxy, previous work by Frank demonstrates that unless the laws of the Universe are highly biased against them, other technologically advanced civilizations are likely to have existed at some point in cosmic history.

“The Universe has created a lot of opportunities for what’s happening to us to have happened before,” Frank says. “We’re starting off by assuming there have been Class V planets.”

And what might a Class V planet look like?

An artist’s rendering of what a Class V planet might look like under Adam Frank’s new classification system. CREDIT (University illustration / Michael Osadciw)

Frank lists several ways­­ humans on Earth might form a technological cooperative between biosphere and civilization, including “greening” large desert land masses such as the Sahara by finding ways to plant trees that will absorb carbon and release oxygen; or creating genetically modified trees with photovoltaic leaves that covert the sun’s energy into electricity.

“Civilization arose as part of a biosphere,” Frank says. “A Type 2 civilization on the Kardashev scale that is super space-baring could live without a biosphere. But a young civilization, like ours, has to see itself as a part of the biosphere. We’re not separate from it, we’re just the latest experiment the earth is running in the evolution of life. If we’re not careful, it will just move on without us.”



61 thoughts on “Climate change for aliens

    • Use all the energy that hits our planet? Use it in what way? I would say that the Earth IS using all the energy that strikes it from the sun. It uses it to propel the winds, cycle water and make plants grow. Living creatures have learned to harness their portion of the energy too.
      The authors surely cannot be suggesting earth absorb all the energy that strikes it!!!

    • I think that this paper says – “Send grants”.
      Possibly in a long-winded way, but something like that.
      It may say – “Send grants; lots of them. Whopping big ones”, but I am not sure.


  1. Apparently there is ‘alien’ (not seen before) life form on earth, in Antarctica ice caves, of all places, where temperature can be as high as +25C.

  2. from the article: “… what we’ve recognized with our classification scheme is that you can’t use energy without causing different kinds of waste”

    Imagine if that ‘waste’ were actually a base of the food chain, like CO2. Using energy would then feed life, like humans are doing now by burning fossil fuels.

  3. It’s hard to believe the Kardashev scale is the gold standard given what hugely varying levels of technological achievement are lumped together under a single label. And even at that it manages to waste a level by defining Type 3 in a way that will probably never have an actual qualifying civilization. Which makes it hardly a rating scale at all.

    This new classification system seems more useful in that it focuses on the humanly achievable, but it still suffers from a fashionable over-emphasis on global warming.

  4. Doesn’t this strike anybody as being totally subjective and a bit contrived in order to fit popular science?
    Also, note the statement “Earth 2.5 billion years ago, before life created the oxygen atmosphere …” So, apparently, Earth ‘s original pond scum did not “cooperate with the biosphere” before emitting the dangerous, climate changing pollutant, oxygen. Clearly, life on earth would have been so much better if it had remained anaerobic.

    • Contrived? Well, that’s not exactly the word that comes to mind, but it will do. These academic “classifiers” should go contrive themselves and stop wasting our time and money.

    • With idiots like this roaming the planet and reproducing, I don’t think we need to worry about hitting Kardeshev V anytime soon. They peer through their telescopes and make assumptions about the habitability of worlds based on the distance from the sun. They have no idea what the CO2 levels are or the thickness of the atmosphere. Only when they consider the earth do they conclude that an advanced civilization is impossible here because we have experienced about a half a degree upward movement of the global temperature..BY SOME MEASUREMENTS! AND IT HAS STOPPED!
      I guess they saw an opportunity for a grant application. Well done boys! The taxpayers salute you! One finger only I’m afraid.

    • I think there may be a classification system for that at least at the civilization scale if not the planetary scale. It has something to do with the rate of change in wasted efforts and dead end ideas stemming from basic wealth gains from energy and technology.

  5. The answer is to do most of that on airless planets and asteroids. Then you get a 2’fer, Because you have to learn to survive with the least amount of air and water you can, we will have to get very good at caring for pollution. We need lots of clean nuclear energy to occupy the Solar System to power our ships. But resources? crushed up planets worth of resources, in nice sized chunks.

  6. How droll. I think I’ll do something more realistic and imagine how much Julia Roberts would have loved me if she had only known me.

  7. “Frank lists several ways­­ humans on Earth might form a technological cooperative between biosphere and civilization, including “greening” large desert land masses such as the Sahara by finding ways to plant trees that will absorb carbon and release oxygen; or creating genetically modified trees with photovoltaic leaves that covert [sic] the sun’s energy into electricity.”

    1. The Sahel and other large very arid land masses are already greening.

    2. What, exactly, is a “technological cooperative between biosphere and civilization”? For there to be cooperation, doesn’t there have to be at least 2 parties, and don’t both parties have to be, er, cooperating? Is the biosphere capable of “cooperation”? Does it even care? Franks isn’t proposing “technological cooperation” but rather “forest management” – and we can already see in North America that there are unintended consequences to the forest management that has been going on for the last 100 years.

    3. I thought genetically-modified anything was absolutely verboten. In any case, if we genetically modified trees to create electricity, wouldn’t that reduce the amount of oxygen that trees create?

  8. Calvin and Hobbes:(Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”, page 29):
    Calvin: Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.

  9. A Type 1 civilization–still a distant goal for Earth–utilizes all of the energy that reaches its planet from its parent star (in Earth’s case, the Sun).

    I don’t understand how this could be accomplished. If all the energy was used (for what?) the planet would be in complete darkness and frozen. Technically we do use all the energy currently for light and warmth.

    • Earth’s clouds, ice, etc., currently reflect away about 30% of the sun’s energy. The rest goes into heating the planet, growing plants, causing weather, etc. There’s a limited amount available for human use before our intervention screws up plant growth, weather patterns, etc.

      • Right. A Dyson sphere completely surrounds a star such that its energy output is entirely trapped and used by the sphere. Such stars would be invisible as no visible light would escape. It would, however, be a strong IR radiation source as multitudinous spires would be needed to shed the used energy as IR.

      • As John harmsworth pointed out, that trapped energy would ultimately be radiated away. A Dyson Sphere would look like a large brown dwarf.

    • Any and all energy we retain on Earth or create (nuclear) and use eventually degrades to heat. Any and all heat energy we release onto the planet has to be radiated away back into space. The laws of entropy dictate that there will be balance on our little globe, regardless what we do with the energy in the meantime.

  10. “The Kardashev scale has been a gold standard classification system for thinking about “exo-civilizations” for decades.”

    More like the “Fools’ Gold Standard.” It’s utter nonsense. Now another theoretician has succeeded in putting lipstick on Kardashev’s pig.

    I still think there must be some LSD-based toxic insecticide that is used to spray the ivy-covered halls of academia. What we see here, and everywhere lately, is the result.

    • WSJ

      Americans Losing Faith in College Degrees, Poll Finds
      Men, young adults and rural residents increasingly say college isn’t worth the cost

  11. The whole idea that we have “discovered seven Earth-like planets, potentially harboring life, orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, not too far from Earth.” is a wild misrepresentation of the actuality….much like “artist’s renditions” of the surface of Venus”….. and false color “photographs” of cosmic phenomena.

    What has been observed (not discovered) are rhythmic or cyclic pulses in the light intensity of a star. That’s the totality of the information we have on the “planets” ….. the rest is conjecture, guess, supposition, wishful thinking, and wild imagination.

    Nothing wrong with Adam Frank advancing ideas about possible levels of extraterrestrial civilizations — but the proper place for this work is in the fields of philosophy and science fiction, not scientific journals.

    • Exactly. These 7 planets orbit a tiny M class red dwarf. The largest orbit is tighter than Mercury by a large margin. The radiation coming off that star would fry any planet in that a tight orbit.
      There was a headline the other day saying water was found on the outer 3 planets when if fact all that was shown was water could not exist on the inner 4 but might be on the outer 3.

  12. “including “greening” large desert land masses such as the Sahara by finding ways to plant trees that will absorb carbon and release oxygen”

    Wouldn’t covering Earth’s deserts with trees deplete atmospheric CO2? Wouldn’t lower CO2 levels reduce plant growth worldwide? Wouldn’t reducing the base of the food chain reduce the entire food chain? Since CO2 is already a trace gas, we better make more CO2 to prevent polar bear starvation!


  13. The Kardashev scale and imaginations of its applicability are similar to the Drake Equation. Both are nothing but speculation, personal bias, hunches that fill-in all the values for the important variables under consideration. The result of which is pseudoscience, or more aptly, it’s science fiction. And funded with tax dollars via researcher grants.

    Further, one person’s definition of a “benefit” is another’s person’s idea of “harm”. We can harness the quite-tasty energy benefit of grilled bovine flesh, adorn it with a little A1 sauce and a side garnish of potatoes. That steak becomes another person’s idea of harm if they imagine the how the cow had to die to provide it. There are no ways to resolve harm vs. benefit without subjective interpretation.

    The key of course with good science fiction writing is to take things that are true, add in speculation, and fantasy to create a story and fill it with scientific sounding principles.

    Some examples:
    – Take the fact that NASA has indeed used the hard science of astronomy in detecting exoplanets that may be close to Earth-size, or in Earth-like orbits around not too extreme stars (the Goldilocks zone idea). Then from there, use fantasy and fiction to write a narrative that surrounds the science and package it in a sciencey sounding story.

    – The so-called “Heisenberg compensator” necessary for the matter transporter used in Star Trek is an example. Many folks have heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle from survey courses in physics, but really have no idea what it means in the physical world. So employing they name seems to add a sciency sounding validity to an actual fiction.

    So the talk of “harnessing energy”, especially renewable, as limitless energy to achieve fantastic civilizations have no considerations of the realities of thermodynamics and inevitable generation of waste heat as work is extracted from the energy flows. What in reality you would end up with for such a fantastic utopian world to exist would be the dual existence of a hadean world, an ugly despoiled twin, that paid for it. The hadean planet would be where the toil and degradation occurred and the wastes deposited, with the products distributed to the utopian world.

    It would be the exoplanet-equivalent of today’s global economy, where sweatshops and dirty, polluting mineral mines in Asia supplied finished goods to the richer parts of the planet that worked to stop environmental degradations in their own backyards.

  14. When a whole scientific discipline exists for the purpose of classifying entities for which there is no evidence (life-bearing planets other than earth), then it is likely too many resources — largely extracted from taxpayers, I think — are being devoted to science. As in the good old days, this kind of imaginary science can be funded non-coercively by readers of science fiction.

  15. Since when was 39.5 light years considered “not too far from Earth”?

    It effectively means humans will never visit these planets, nor be able to communicate with intelligent life it exists there. The odds suggest life exists elsewhere in the Universe. The odds (and Einstein’s theories) also suggest we will never find it.

    • We theoretically could communicate with intelligent lifeforms on a planet 39.5 light years away, but it would take 79 years for a two-way chat by presently fastest methods of communication.

      • That’s assumes the signal would be strong enough to be detectable at that distant, and that we would be able to identify it for what it is. And if Einstein was right, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, technological innovation isn’t going to change that.

  16. The guy has got it back-asswards.
    One of the prime uses of energy is that of controlling the environment to make it more suitable for life. In our case that is largely for human life, though some of us also keep aquariums and other indulgences. An advanced civilisation could use larger amounts of energy to make uninhabitable planets teem with life.

  17. I know this is pedantic, but “not too far from Earth”. By what? Bicycle? Tesla motor mower? I thought the whole problem about finding exo-planets was that , on current technology, they are really all rather too far from Earth.

  18. I would classify it this way.
    1 A civilization confined to it’s home planet
    2 A civilization confined to it’s solar system
    3 A civilization confined to the universe
    4 A civilization confined to the knowable universes.
    1 A civilization that has mapped it’s home planet
    2 A civilization that has mapped it’s solar system
    3 A civilization that has mapped it’s home galaxy
    4 A civilization that has mapped the universe..
    6 A civilization that has mapped all knowable universes.

    So we haven’t completed mapping Earth and certainly haven’t come close to
    mapping our solar system, even in at rudimentary level of finding
    all objects larger than our Moon. In terms of Earth we are in early stages
    of exploring our oceans and haven’t done much in terms mapping the interior
    of the planet. And haven’t really come close to completion of terms of mapping
    the skin surface of the planet we live on. Or could limit the skin surface to land which is
    below the human body temperature [or some other number like 100 C- or boiling point of
    I would say energy is only a problem or issue, because we are civilization confined to
    it’s home planet. And I think any alien would be surprised that Earthling thought a problem was
    a shortage of energy even if they knew Earthlings were confined to their home planet.
    Or some home planets somewhere might have a problem with a finite amount of energy, if only living on their home planet, but a planet like Earth wouldn’t one of them.

    The only shortage of energy on Earth is shortage of cheap energy- and we have governments seemingly/apparently trying to make it more expensive. Though I think any alien would understand the problem related to governments or I think that is a universal constant.

    I think the number of alien civilizations in your galaxy is somewhere around 1000.
    Or they are rare.
    Probably most of 1000 have left their home planet. Though depends what
    you mean by civilization- or one civilization could “seed” another civilization. Or if earthlings were to travel to the stars, they could start other civilizations and they could start civilizations which they were unaware of. Or you could get “lost civilizations”.
    Btw, I don’t think Earth is a “lost civilization” but I think there could be civilizations started by other civilizations. Or roughly speaking of the 1000 probably more 1/2 are related to each other.
    Of course other way of thinking of civilization as in Earth has had hundreds of civilizations throughout it’s history- or talking about empires or cultures or simply connected settlements which are somewhat isolated for decades and/or centuries. Or there could a million of such settlements/civilizations in our galaxy.
    Or in couple thousand years, Earth might have dozens of such settlements/civilizations. The other factor is we can change our “biology”- genetic engineering, also naturally evolve if given enough time.
    Or we tend to think we going to go to earth like planets, but even something close to Earth will be different environment than Earth. Or roughly speaking we may alter a planet to some extent but we also going to adapt to different environment.
    Or we have 140 million people who have adapted to living in higher elevations on Earth- they have actual have difference in DNA. And obviously one have greater differences which people could adapt to- by planned genetic change or “natural” changes over time..

    • I consider your first classification should include confined to its own galaxy.

      I certainly prefer that type of classification over the Kardashev scale.

      As Penny would say, it would take civilizations light years before they would be able to overcome the bounds and restraints of their own galaxy.

  19. I postulate two levels of civilization.

    Credulist ~ Tending to believe that something is real or true because it appears in someone’s imagination.

    Incredulist ~ Tending to be skeptical/wary of what appears in someone’s imagination.

    ; )

  20. It would be good if we made some proper scientific progress in understanding the technology of past civilizations on our own planet before considering other worlds. Still waiting for the correct decoding of ancient pyramids and associated artefacts. Why no progress on this?

    • What pyramids are you thinking of ? The Egyptian ones are now well understood, we have been reading Epyptian hieroglyphic and demotic texts for more than a century and while there is much yet to learn there is no great mystery if by that you mean allegedly secret measurements, messages or instructions or alien messages. I do hope you don’t subscribe to the essentially eurocentric nonsensical belief that no early people could achieve what the Egyptians did without help from “Atlanteans” or aliens.
      As for American (North and South) pyramid cultures, I’ll happily leave that to comments from those over the other side of the pond.

      • The Egyptian ones are now well understood,

        I disagree. We still do not know how the Great Pyramid was built.

        We still do not know whether it contains hidden chambers, or shaft ways, and for what purpose some of the shafts ways found possess.

        There is speculation as to whether King Tut’s tomb contains a further chamber etc.

        But perhaps Badger was merely despairing upon the stupidity of the research behind the present article. What purpose does it achieve? I would be very disappointed if my tax dollars went into such a wasted exercise of no practical importance whatsoever. I can think of dozens of better ways to waste money.

      • Ancient texts, hieroglyphic or otherwise, contain virtually no information about the Egyptian pyramids. The so called “understanding” most people believe we have got is actually pure supposition and guesswork and is not based upon sound evidence. Further research is relatively limited by the authorities.

        An objective examination of the details of the structure of the pyramids would tend to suggest that they are what remains of some kind of machine or device. The correct procedure should be a more detailed examination in an attempt to “reverse engineer” their actual function(s) to explore this .

        Beliefs regarding abilities of past civilizations (with or without help from elsewhere) are irrelevant here. We just need a proper and detailed forensic analysis using all the tools available to modern science. For example there are some theories about the pyramids being nuclear reactors or chemical plants. Scrapings from internal surfaces can be used to eliminate or confirm these ideas.Other theories suggest water pumps, we could try examining internal surfaces for evidence of water flow, cavitation damage, etc.

    • There is much evidence to suggest that the Egyptians found the great pyramids and used them in their own mythology. Dating is hard in stone structures but they could be as old as one hundred thousand years looking at weathering on the sphinx. That would suggest a very old and advanced civilisation, the same one that did all the huge stone structures seen around the world that seem to have been destroyed in a huge cataclysm or war. Odd is it not that we today we cannot quarry or move let alone place in a structure these huge stones?

  21. “That waste feedbacks on the state of planet.” That statement tells me all I need to know; these people cannot be taken seriously,

  22. The proposed classification scheme and the Anthropocene journal are environmentalist propaganda and pop culture fad. The Anthropocene is the Age of Chicken.
    The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists. “Since the mid-20th century, it has become the world’s most common bird. It has been fossilised in thousands of landfill sites and on street corners around the world,”

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