Dr. Gowing: Let’s move now up to that pale blue dot that we’re sitting on and how it gets seen. Although Kathy Sullivan says she’s not actually going to talk about the pale blue dot. Anyway, she has seen it because she has been an astronaut. Kathy, come and join us on the platform, please. Welcome. Tell us about the kind of things that are on your mind having been the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? Is it surviving into the new presidency, by the way?
Dr. Sullivan: So far so good.
Dr. Gowing: Okay. Thank you. Floor is yours.
Dr. Sullivan: Thank you. Well, I do want to talk about the pale blue dot we live on. That would be a bit of the departure because I’m not going to talk directly about water. You’ve seen and heard bits of the threads that I think and hope we’ll gather together in my talk. Fabulous visuals. Never precede an astronaut if you’re competing on visuals. Let’s run the tape if we can.
Dr. Gowing: Kathy, use this.
Dr. Sullivan: There you go. Much better. Thank you. This could have been me when I was little. This planet has always been what fascinated me. Also as a teenager, I watched these grand adventures as many of you did this iconic image arguably the most famous image of the 21st century. That put me in love with this pale blue marble of ours. I came in my 20s with a chance to go see it with my own eyes from that extraordinary perspective. Leaving is an amazing experience. You ride an earthquake. You ride a bomb to get off of this planet. You go from zero miles an hour to 17,500 miles an hour in eight and a half minutes. Then you circle the Earth every 90 minutes. You see a sunrise and a sunset every 45 minutes. I’ve seen all of your countries. I’ve seen more of all of your countries than you have but never tasted your food. The views are spectacular.
I’m on the left. You will notice I glanced briefly at my crew mates and I start right away to look back at the Earth. You will see momentarily why that is so. This is the blue beach ball that we flew around. This is Venezuela in the background going between my boots. Every scene at your office window is a continent, is a full ocean but more importantly, every scene teaches you something profound about how this planet of ours works. Something that struck me all this morning through the talks is this was never mentioned as clearly as it must be mentioned. This planet is misnamed. We call it Earth. It should have been called Aqua. It is predominantly water. Everything you see that is blue is water. Everything that you see is white is water. We know the statistics.
We know most of it is salty and too much of what’s not salty isn’t safe but we live on a water planet. That’s what makes our planet work. It’s what makes our planet live. It what makes us alive. There are now eight people living on a fake planet above the earth. It’s been inhabited since 1998 continuously. They are a different kind of citizen of their planet. They know each system perfectly. They know how it’s built. They know how it works. They invest most of their day taking care of that system. They have a shared purpose on board. They are not pursuing separate aims but one purpose together. The blue panel on the left is what processes their water and recycles it from urine and waste water to gray water to drinking water. You see coming into forward here these silver cans.
That’s what takes waste down to the Earth because we might think this is a closed system. They’re very proud of how closed it is but in fact, this system is not closed at all. It depends critically on Earth for re-supply of food, for re-supply of water, for removal of waste but its citizens know that their survival and their ability to achieve their mission is dependent on working together on being about the mission and on taking very good care of that spaceship. It is that arc of tan Earth behind that really is the closed spaceship. The spaceship we live on that is closed with respect to everything except energy from the sun. One thing we must find a way to do whether through business models or ethics or combinations is find a way to live in a way that recognizes we are the crew of this spaceship.
It is the only one we have. We’re not going to find some other magic planet that sustains us. There are ways. They are here. They’re at our fingertips that we can live more sustainably. We can live more wisely and better on this planet. The scenes just entrance you anywhere you look. The river system’s feeding into the Coastal zone of our oceans where our fisheries come from. The increasing population density through almost every continent that you look at and after all of that, this thin blue veil, that thin little blue lit horizon, that is our atmosphere. That is the source of the water that we drink and we need. It pumps interactively with our ocean. Our ocean must be in the equation. Those are what astronauts see, but it’s not enough to take postcard pictures. We need actionable information.
We have now fleets of satellites over our heads that take the measurements, that take the quantification, that help us really understand how the systems on our planet are working. That take the pulse of our planet. This is extraordinary. We are the first generation of human beings that have the ability to take the pulse of the planet in a snapshot. To watch it continuously and to transform these measurements into forecasts and outlooks that give us foresight. That give us the ability to think ahead, to plan ahead, assess alternative courses of actions. We’re teenagers at having this space-based capability, we’re babies at learning how to bring it into our decision making in wiser ways. These data from satellites that are monitoring let us also see trends that are affecting our planet that human beings are terrible at noticing.
Trends that are longer than our time frames or happen over areas bigger than we are familiar with. The warming of the entire globe of the decades that you see here from the 70s. Some things astronauts have seen and reported from even before the satellite era. The Aral Sea drying up. That black outline on the right is where the boundary that Lake Shore was in 1960. Almost nothing left. Villages depopulated. Fisheries have failed. It’s about failed irrigation. It’s about misuse of water. Look at that tremendous change in the course of our lifetimes.
We have now the ability to take the pulse of the planet to translate that into data and information that can give us the ability to plan and to see trends overtime. In the Amazon again, since before the age of automated satellites, astronauts reported how amazing it was to see this shape of the Amazon changing as agriculture moved into the rainforest areas. The rainforest of our planet are the lungs of our planet. We take all the rainforest out and expect a healthy planet, it’s like your doctor telling you, “I’m just going to take your lungs out. You’ll really be okay.” It doesn’t work that way. This is an integrated system of systems. The intertwinings are intricate and tremendous and all of it works together to produce this envelope of life that we depend on and every other creature on the planet as well.
Much has been said today about the nexus, the water, food, energy nexus. That’s close but not quite. There is a fourth pillar, a fourth access in that nexus. It is this. It is the planet itself. If we think about handling and using, managing our water needs only to meet what we want and we need for food or water or energy, we fail to consider the functioning of the planet. It is just another way to crash. We’ve been making that mistake for decades and decades in human decision making. Dust from the Sahel in Africa feeds phosphorus into Brazil and is part of the nutrient system in the Amazon rainforest. Who knew? Everywhere you look, every moment you go around the planet, you see again how little water there is in many places. 65% of the freshwater on this planet is in just 13 nations. It tells you quickly how the imbalances affect us all.
You notice that most of the water on the planet by far is blue. It is the blue water of the ocean. Every other breath of oxygen you take comes from that ocean. The pump that makes our water, our weather cycle and our climate cycle work, it is the ocean. If we’re going to talk about water and be about water, we must not omit the ocean. It is an integral element of the water cycle that we all depend upon. I leave you with these thoughts and one other. Every astronaut who has ever had this view comes back and their strongest impulse is to take everyone they know up to that place and let them see this perspective. Human beings don’t change their minds and they don’t change their practices because they’ve heard something, not hearing something new. They change because they experienced something new, something that changes them from inside.
All of the 500 and some people who have had this experience have come back to Earth different than when they left. If we had some way to bottle it and give it to you to drink or inject it in you so you would know that, too. As we talk here today and we go forward from here to think about how to bring fresh perspective, new ethos to the youth of our planet, as an educator, I say, “Be sure we’re creating opportunities for students to do something, to experience something. Not just to read something. Certainly not to hear something from us. They must shape their world. They will shape our world. Let’s give them experiences and let them start learning how to do that. Start learning how to do it in community across boundaries.” We live on the most extraordinary blue dot that we know. To me, it’s a blue marble.
Matt Damon will follow me, Matt, the Martian. He’ll tell you what he thinks it would have been like to see the blue dot from Mars. You can’t actually see it with your eyes but spacecraft eyes can see it. There are millions and millions of children walking the face of this Earth right now depending on this planet, living from its systems, looking to us as his Holiness has said, “Looking to us to bust through the foresight to care for this planet of ours well.” Pope Francis has counseled us and cautioned us to be aware of the foolishness of thinking that we can substitute something engineered for the irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty and bounty of this planet that we have.
His counsel has and encyclical to remember that it is yes about the needs of humankind for water. Yes about the rights of each human being to water but it is also about the needs of every other organism on the planet and the planet itself. Let’s look at all four elements of this nexus. As the Pope has invited us and urged us, let’s take better care of this home planet. Thank you.
Dr. Gowing: Kathy, given that you said one thing, which is everyone comes back changed from what you’ve experienced up there along with other astronauts and cosmonauts. What do you think about the fact that you see a planet which has got 67% water but we have water shortages? Is that one great thought that you have about how this can be reconciled given the level of stress we’re here to discuss, a level of stress which hasn’t yet been fully addressed?
Dr. Sullivan: I think it’s the quandary we all wrestle with when we come back because you mainly see, as you saw on those scenes, you mainly see continents. You see a planet. Everyone is struck by how little you see of the boundaries that we think about everyday when we live here on Earth. You have to try hard to see political boundaries. You can see them if you try hard. That reminds us, it reminds me that human beings, when we muster intention and energy and resources, we are a very powerful species. We leave fingerprints on this planet. Every city is like a finger smudge on the backdrop of the Earth. You can see borders. Famously, the border between the state of California and my country, in Mexico is a border marked by the different water usage on the north and the south side of the border. More water taken out of the Colorado to the north, richer and larger fields.
Much more impoverished agriculture to the south. You can see the border between the United States and Canada. Although it’s a tremendously peaceful one. You can see Guatemala, Mexico because of forestry practices. We do mark this planet. We do impact it tremendously but you see it from that perspective, you see both massively powerful natural systems and the most exquisitely fine filigree and detail. Dust tendrils from Africa as Jerry Linenger said and as I have seen from Central Asia all the way across to the Atlantic Coast that you see with your naked eye. It tells you something about the intricacy of the weaving of our systems. We need to learn to respect and emulate that sort of intricacy.
Dr. Gowing: That’s a great aspiration but here’s Kylie Leonard saying, “How do we get our representative governments to care about the water crisis?” It really is that disconnect between what someone like you could see up there and the reality of how you get policy implemented.
Dr. Sullivan: It’s tough. I think you have to make it something local and important to them. The other thing is, we are all citizens. Our representatives do respond to whether we’re all only talking about today and what I want you to do for me today or maybe day after tomorrow. Whether as Gunther said, I agree, we’re saying to our politicians, “I expect you to do something so that my children and my grandchildren are okay.” If it’s all about me within a day or two, it will never connect. If we as citizens of our respective governments insist that it also be about generations to come, we can start to lever that in a new direction.
Dr. Gowing: We got a quick question. Please. No, not at the moment. Okay, Chris. Do you need a microphone?
Chris: I don’t need a microphone. You spoke about the agnosticism of the planet in terms of its resilience. I wonder if you could speak to that a little bit.
Dr. Sullivan: We’re a new phenomena on planet Earth. The planet has gone through cycles and changes before. It will continue to do so. It has never done it with seven billion plus people on the planet living in societies that presume certain conditions to keep them stable, to keep people fed, to keep economies running, to keep civic order. As the patterns we are accustomed to from the last few decades changed outside of that bounds, the planet will be perfectly fine. What we have presumed about economic and social stability and progress, that is what will be at risk. The planet will be perfectly fine. The planet Venus is perfectly fine. It probably was much more Earth-like once. The planet Mars is perfectly fine. It, too was probably more Earth-like once.
Lost those capacities, so this is not about whether planet Earth will survive. Planet Earth will survive. The question is about our ability to live wisely and well on this planet.
Dr. Gowing: Can it create a stability or not? Can we as human beings, seven billion of us create a stability which will guarantee the survival of what we assume should survive?
Dr. Sullivan: There are no guarantees in life. We can certainly do a better job than we’re doing currently.
Dr. Gowing: Okay. You could have speak, no. There’s a gentleman there. Can we get that microphone as well, Chris, please? Yes, Minister?
Minister: Yes. Thank you very much for inspiring presentation. Of course, you passed as a frontier went to the space. Looking at from the top, looking at this 67% of water resource, do you see human ingenuity actually create that possibility of using these towards fresh water resource?
Dr. Sullivan: Today, if you look down at the Earth but you mainly see are what I call brute force bits of ingenuity. You see dams. You see canals. You see a center pivot irrigation, water intense irrigation in the heart of Saudi Arabia, in strange, crazy strange places. That place you’re probably pumping up thousand, 2,000 year old water to let us for a few weeks. It’s a crazy use of water. It will be harder to see fine balance because we don’t see that much of it right now. This is another reason you need data from satellites, you need data from nations. You can’t complete the picture. I can tell you what I saw. To turn that into what does it mean and what should you do? We have to bring together data from satellites, data from national statistical agencies.
This is another specific thing we can do as countries is to make sure that the data about water resources and our societies are as open and global and freely available as possible and interoperable because to make a proper picture of your country, Ethiopia in this, you need to understand how the planetary system is working. It’s a start to have Ethiopia’s data but to understand the whole system where you sit in it is the more important thing, too.
Dr. Gowing: Just to be clear, given what you are doing at the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is there a rigor to the data now? An unequivocal rigor which means you are absolutely certain about what you are seeing?
Dr. Sullivan: There is an unequivocal rigor. It is not a 0.000 or perfection but it is bounded and the bounds are known. The bounds are always public. To decision makers, it’s not a guarantee statement. It’s an assurance your outcome will be in here and you, sir or you, sir have to decide where to place your risk decision as a government. That’s a policy decision. We make a very risky posture. We take a very cautious posture. That’s not a science data decision. That’s a policy decision but the science can and does tell you, you’re wise to have your decision somewhere in here. That’s where the outcome will be.
Audience Member: We’re now past the point at which more than half the population of the world live in cities. That trend looks set to increase to cities and mega cities. How important do you think it is that we are connecting with our mayors, our citizens as much as we’re connecting with our governments who sometimes appear detached?
Dr. Sullivan: I think it’s critical the connections begin at the most local political level. Certainly, in the United States drive and innovation typically comes from cities and regions to the central government, not the other way around. That is absolutely critical. Can I close, Nick with just one other point on data? All those satellites I showed you whirling around, most of them are the investments of several decades ago. They’re currently, predominantly government systems because back when, only governments had the means to do that. I emphasize the point about free and open globally shared data. That’s been the regime since the dawn of the space age. That regime is at risk. Governments, the European Union for example has a new system called the Sentinel they see as a services platform, not an observing platform.
They monetize and make some return on having built those satellites. There’s a push in the United States in some quarters that have private companies build and own the satellites and sell the raw data. Not build value added products on top of that. That is a policy question to keep an eye on and to really push against if we want to be able to lift everybody up.
Dr. Gowing: Are you saying that may threaten the integrity of the data and how it’s interpreted?
Dr. Sullivan: No. It will threaten the accessibility of the data to all the people who might need them. It will create a price barrier. If you’re well enough to do company or country, you will easily have the data. If you’re not well enough to do, you’ll be blind.
Dr. Gowing: All right. Kathy, thank you very much indeed. I don’t know whether Kathy’s going to stay in this with her flying suit for the rest of the day but you know how to recognize her at least.