Climate crisis begs for EO emotion

10 October 2018

Back in June, leaders of Europe’s space sector gathered in Baveno, on the shore of Italy’s Lake Maggiore, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the so-called Baveno Manifesto – which set in motion the creation of the Earth observation programme now known as Copernicus. Anyone fortunate enough to have been there discovered new aspects of this ambitious scheme and was surely impressed by – or reminded of – its ambition (while enjoying a very pleasant couple of days).

This week, as widely reported, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published an alarming report underscoring the hazards we face if global warming – already 1°C above pre-industrial levels – exceeds 1.5°C and approaches the 2C limit envisioned by the 2015 Paris Agreement. The scale of this challenge is daunting; to stop at 1.5C, says the IPCC, will require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities”, to push global net human-caused CO2 emissions to “net zero” by about 2050. What is still “possible within the laws of chemistry and physics,” though, would “require unprecedented changes”.

What is politically possible remains another question. Whatever comes politically, it goes without saying that satellite Earth observation is a powerful tool for scientists and policy makers to monitor progress and make the changes needed if there is to be any hope of averting a crisis.

But does the Earth observation community have a more powerful tool than the images and data being gathered, in vast quantities daily, by public- and private-sector space missions? One presentation to the Baveno gathering suggests that it might.

European Space Agency director general Jan Wörner has many strengths, and one of them is an instinct for talking freely about his vision of what space can bring to people on Earth. That is, he understands the importance of communicating that vision, to colleagues, partners and the taxpaying public.

Wörner recalled how EO experts dismissed his suggestion that the International Space Station might be a useful platform – the orbit is wrong, it doesn’t see the whole planet, and astronauts with cameras are hardly a substitute for carefully-designed data-gathering instruments. As he told the Baveno gathering, all those criticisms are true. But they miss one important factor: “If an astronaut also gives you his feelings when he is taking this picture, it is something we should use. We should also have the feeling of what we are doing, not only the data itself.”

It is of course nothing new for people on the ground to be impressed by the beauty of Earth as seen from space, and as long as there have been astronauts they have been eager to talk about their unique experience of the beauty – and fragility – of our planet.

But Wörner hinted, perhaps, at something deeper. That is, can data and images from EO missions be better used to impress upon everyone the urgency of climate change action? To save our planet – ourselves – from climate catastrophe will clearly take an effort beyond the political capacity of national governments to impose solutions. It will take, also, a ground-up movement by people – everyone, everywhere – to change lifestyles and expectations.

The 1.5C challenge is not just a matter of gathering enough data and turning that data into actionable intelligence and policy prescriptions. It is, to borrow Wörner’s words, about “the feeling of what we are doing”. If Earth observation people are to make a real difference, theirs is not a data and analysis challenge. It is a communication challenge.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst took this photo of Paris from the ISS in August, remarking: “Another concerning sight from orbit. Paris surrounded by brown fields, like much of Europe was this summer” (ESA/NASA)
Meanwhile, Sentinel-2 told the summer heatwave story, too – with this image of brown fields around Chippenham in Wiltshire, UK (ESA)