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Opinion

Seeing climate change from space

Viewed from orbit, Earth's fragility highlights the need for urgent action

| Japan
The Space Shuttle Atlantis undocks from the International Space Station in September 2006: from space you can see not just light pollution but forest fires, impure water and air pollution over industrial areas.   © NASA/Reuters

From Naoko Yamazaki, a former astronaut aboard the International Space Station. She is a member of the Earthshot Prize Council.

When astronauts who have been into space meet, we inevitably talk about that first look down at Earth and our initial thought tends to be the same -- that our world is beautiful. It is an awe-inspiring and magical experience looking down, but it is tinged with unease when you sense how fragile our world is.

Through the thin hazy atmosphere that protects all life on Earth you can clearly see the damage that humanity has wrought on its home. From space you can see not just light pollution but forest fires, impure water and air pollution over industrial areas.

I believe that if people could see what we can see looking down or sometimes looking up -- depending on our postures in microgravity -- beyond their parochial outlooks, they too would see climate change as a problem we all face, everyone of us, right now.

But the mere fact that we can see the world from space should give us hope. The human endeavor that got us there is truly remarkable. If our achievements in space tell us anything it is that we can achieve the impossible.

We have the innovative minds, resources and the capabilities to save the planet, but we must channel these fully into our greatest priority -- reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting our atmosphere. We need to be bold.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to the world that the United States planned to put people on the moon, and return them safely to Earth, before the end of the decade. At the time, the nation had a mere 15 minutes of human-spaceflight experience. It was an audacious promise, but it inspired a nation.

It is that level of ambition we need to meet our 2030 and 2050 emissions deadlines. We must encourage, generate and optimize ingenuity from across the globe, which is why initiatives such as the Earthshot Prize are so important.

I am honored to be joining Prince William and a team of leaders from different parts of the world as a member of the Earthshot Prize Council. Taking inspiration from the Moonshot, the Earthshot Prize is a new multi-million-pound global prize which aims to incentivize change and create a new wave of ambition and innovation around finding ways to help save the planet. The prize will champion technologies, systems, policies and solutions that can improve life for us all, for generations to come.

Some people may believe this is an overly ambitious initiative with unrealistic expectations, but that is the point, and that is exactly what people thought about that 1960s moonshot.

Scientists tell us this decade is the most important in the history of our planet as we must meet our aims to halve our emissions by 2030, or be left facing an irrecoverable problem. Ingenuity has to be encouraged. I believe that this Prize has the potential to create real impetus and, importantly, it will turn the current pessimism surrounding environmental issues into optimism.

Personally, I would like to develop a system that would allow everyone on Earth to travel into space to find a solution that will benefit our environment both on Earth and in space, and allow individuals to witness firsthand just how fragile our planet is. I believe it would immediately spark one of our deepest and primitive thoughts -- to protect our home.

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