FAO's new Goodwill Ambassador, astronaut Thomas Pesquet, calls us to act against climate change
On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into space, completing one full orbit around Earth. For the first time ever, a human saw what our planet looked like from above. The planet he saw back then, though, would have been very different to what Earth looks like now. In the years that have passed, climate change and human activity have drastically altered our "Blue planet", to the extent that the effects are visible even from space.
Now, 60 years later, Thomas Pesquet, a French astronaut with the European Space Agency (ESA) and FAO's new Goodwill Ambassador, is speaking out about climate change, having personally seen from space the damage done.
"You're struck by how beautiful it [Earth] is, and then you start realising that it's not always the case. You see the clearing in the forest, the water pollution, the air pollution. It makes you think about the impact of our activities on the planet," Pesquet says.
Flying to the International Space Station for the first time in 2016, Pesquet spent 196 consecutive days in space, working as a flight engineer, running scientific experiments and observing Earth.
"I was a witness of the effects of climate change on our planet and the consequences of human action. I tried to document this and advocate for more respect for the environment. Going to space gives you the step back that you need," he continues.
"When I came back to earth from this privileged viewpoint that allowed me to see so much, I was looking for a way to take action."
Pesquet has since become a big advocate for action on climate change, biodiversity and conservation of natural resources, choosing to speak publicly about these issues. He began working with FAO in 2018, participating in COP23 events by sharing his experiences from space, sending a special video message for World Food Day 2019 and giving an address on the Fifth Anniversary of the Paris Agreement in 2020 to highlight the urgency of tackling climate change in order to achieve food security.
He became an FAO Goodwill Ambassador on 12 April 2021, the International Day of Human Space Flight that commemorates Gagarin's history-altering trip.
Pesquet will be launching into space again on 22 April 2021 aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft headed to the International Space Station. In this upcoming mission, Pesquet will bring with him both a United Nations flag and an FAO one, marking his official partnership with the Organization. He is also demonstrating his dedication to the issue of climate change and hunger with the Alpha mission patch, whose edges are coloured with 17 slots representing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Earth from space: New perspective, new data
Aside from perspective, space also give us unique data on these changes. In fact, space satellites are one of the best ways to collect data on climate change. Earth's changing temperature, sea levels, atmospheric gases and declining ice and forest cover are all being monitored by satellites. Being able to observe and monitor these changes from space has revolutionised the way we perceive our planet and helped us comprehend the profound impact our actions are having on the environment.
Given the enormity of the climate change challenge, space agencies have begun to establish space programmes dedicated to monitoring and tracking climate change. FAO is working with ESA to make the data gathered from these satellites available on an open-source platform, helping countries use this data to guide their food and agricultural policies and curb the effects of climate change. Recently strengthening their partnership, FAO and ESA will also implement research and development activities on using earth observation for generating agriculture statistics, which can help countries in monitoring their progress in achieving the SDGs.
For Pesquet, this data-gathering aspect of space travel is critical to addressing Earth's challenges, as science and technology are our best allies.
"I'm a scientist at heart," he says, "and I believe that unbiased science is really the way to tackle most of today's problems."
Working together in our very own spaceship
Climate change is disrupting more than just the health of our planet. It is influencing our health, natural resources, ecosystems, even our ability to feed ourselves. Changing rainfall patterns, increased drought and flooding, unpredictable weather and varied temperatures all greatly threaten agricultural productivity and the world's food security, unequally harming the poor and those who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.
International cooperation is vital for solving problems like climate change, just one reason why Pesquet says he was inspired to work with FAO.
"Our earth is a spaceship flying through space with limited resources. The problems are the same - a hostile environment that you have to deal with, limited resources that you have to share and there is a need to get along with crew members and work together to achieve your goals," Pesquet says. "You have to help the spaceship fly for as long as possible and in the best shape possible, for all the crew."
Making daily changes in our own lives is very important, but international cooperation and government buy-in are key.
"You can adapt your own behaviour, but it's important at a political level that good decisions are being made. That's why I'm trying to advocate for the planet in general, I hope that we'll see things change more quickly."
If we are all living on one big spaceship, then our mission should be to keep our home safe for ourselves and generations to come. This means changing our habits on a personal level and pushing for policy changes on the political stage too. With concerned citizens and FAO Goodwill Ambassadors like Thomas Pesquet, spreading the message on earth and beyond, we are moving closer to a more sustainable future for people and for the planet.