Europe space chief says exploration can propel interest in climate change

LONDON: World leaders should use space exploration as a tool to teach the public about climate change and spur action to curb global warming, Europe’s top space official said on Thursday.

From the heating caused by greenhouse gases to the need to reuse resources, space missions can show people what might happen to the Earth in the future, said Jan Woerner, director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA).

“Data, pictures and footage from space can convince people about climate change,” Woerner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview ahead of a talk at the Web Summit, a global tech conference.

“Space exploration allowed us to understand climate change on Earth, because it was found on Venus first,” he said.

Venus, the Earth’s closest planetary neighbour, has a thick atmosphere which traps heat in what is considered a runaway greenhouse effect, making it the solar system’s hottest planet.

Planets like Mars – home to a mostly dry, desolate and cold world – could also show mankind how to avoid wasting resources and preserve life on Earth, Woerner added.

“Developing a spacecraft that would allow for human exploration to Mars forces you to consider cleaning and reusing air, reusing water or drinking the same coffee as you did yesterday,” he explained.

In July, NASA launched a new rover to search for signs of past life on Mars, a mission seen as a precursor for human exploration of a beyond-frozen planet about a third the size of Earth that orbits at least 35.8 million miles away.

Just as youth activists have done, space exploration could help “make climate change cool” and drive broader awareness of the problem, Woerner said.

This week saw a youth-led “Mock COP” event organised after the COP26 U.N. climate negotiations, due to be held in Glasgow last month, were delayed a year by the pandemic, with young people vowing to develop climate policy if adults could not.

Other space experts and astronauts have called for urgent action on climate change.

Last year, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano spoke to a U.N. summit in Madrid via video link from the International Space Station, urging world leaders to pull their “heads out of the sand” over climate change.

Space exploration can also help convince the public that “climate change transcends borders and should therefore not be a political issue”, said Woerner.

“That’s the beauty of space: you’re above the Earth – from space you don’t even see borders.”


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Zoe Tabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation

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