Wanted, urgent: Next-Gen Jacque Cousteaus to be our tour guides to Planet Ocean!

Tony Fontes

As my Australian diver friend Valerie used to say, the trouble with many of us land-lubbers is that we have ‘no idea what’s going on in the sea that covers three quarters of our planet’.

Yet what we do – and don’t do – affects the fate of the sea and all its creatures and systems. That’s a big problem.

Take, for example, roral reefs. Among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet, they are sometimes called rainforests of the sea. And these rich and colourful habitats are now under siege from multiple pressures, ranging from indiscriminate fishing and tourism practices to global warming.

Yet, the coral reefs haven’t attracted the same kind of public concern and outcry as has the destruction of tropical rainforests. How come?

Is this a case of out of sight and out of mind for a majority of the world’s land-lubbers? This is what I asked Australian diver Tony Fontes, who has been a diver and dive instructor for 30 years, much of it at the largest reef of all – the Great Barrier Reef off the north-eastern coast of Australia.

“It sure is – and ideally, everyone should become a diver, so we can all see and feel the wonders of the reef,” he replied.

He added: “At a minimum, we have to do lots of awareness raising. This is why we need to bring back Jacques-Yves Cousteau!”

Tony was engaging journalists at the 7th Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held in Viterbo, Italy, from 25 – 29 November 2009.

This year’s theme is ‘Climate is changing: stories, facts and people’, and Tony was one of 10 Climate Witnesses who travelled to the central Italian city from far corners of the world to share their stories of ground level changes induced by climate change. Climate Witness is a global programme by WWF International to enable grassroots people to share their story of how climate change affects their lives and what they are doing to maintain a clean and healthy environment. All Climate Witness stories have been authenticated by independent scientists.

Great Barrier Reef: A planetary treasure under siege

Tony lives and works in Airlie Beach (Whitsundays) in Queensland, Australia. It’s a small seaside community right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Most of his time is spent underwater on training dives – he has clocked over 10,000 hours of professional diving. He generally dives many of the same sites over and over again.

This long and deep immersion in the marine realm gives him uncommon insights into the state of the reef – and it’s not a healthy or pretty picture.

He says: “Through personal observations as well as those by other divers, I have noted changes to the (marine) environment hat are most likely climate induced.”

Increase in coral bleaching is the most noticeable change. From a rare occurrence in the 1980s, it went on to become a regular summer event by the mid 1990s. The past decade has witnessed the largest coral bleaching events on record. And unlike in the past, these have led to large scale coral death and decay.

“Many popular dive sites have lost their lustre due to coral bleaching,” he says, pointing out that the reefs need up to 10 years to fully recover.

He adds: “However, with more bleaching events occurring every year, I wonder if the reefs will ever recover. Without the postcard reef scenes, many visitors are disappointed in their reef experience and are not likely to return.”

It’s not just warmer seas that affects the Great Barrier Reef. Occasional outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, marine pests who eat up the healthy reef, add pressure on the reef. In recent years, scientists have identified another threat – sediments, fertilisers and pesticides from agricultural run-off. This was investigated in Sally Ingleton’s 2003 film, Muddy Waters: Life and Death on the Great Barrier Reef.

Listening to Tony reminded me of Muddy Waters, which journeys to the sugarcane plantations of northern Queensland and into an underwater world to find out what’s killing the reef and what can be done to save it. I was on the international jury of Japan Wildlife Film Festival 2003 when we voted it for the Best Environment and Conservation Award.

“It’s hard to get farmers to change their ways,” says Tony, who works with three local initiatives aimed at reef conservation and related educational outreach. This includes Project AWARE, a non-profit environmental organisation that encourages divers to take action and protect the environment.

The clown fish who moved the world

Global warming now threatens to nullify all these efforts. “If the coral reefs of the world are to survive, we cannot afford the predicted 2 – 3 degree increase in ocean temperature. But we also need to…reduce all impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. This would include improving the water quality of the reef.”

Tony comes across as a man of few, carefully chosen words. His answers are brief and precise. But his passion for the reef and the ocean is clearly evident.

He had a simple, emphatic message to the world’s leaders and activists meeting soon in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Summit: “How are we going to explain to our children and their children that we lost the Great Barrier Reef?”

Perhaps we need not only the next generation of Jacques Cousteaus, but also every kind of communicator who can take the marine conservation messages through factual and entertainment media formats. It’s encouraging to note that Finding Nemo, the 2003 Disney-Pixar animation movie set in the Great Barrier Reef, is the highest selling DVD of all time – more than 40 million copies, and counting.

WWF Australia backgrounder on the Great Barrier Reef

VULNERABLE: Still images of a moving story…from Bluepeace, in the Maldives


Bluepeace at 20: Voices from the waves...

Bluepeace, the first environmental organisation in the Maldives, recently marked their 20th anniversary.

In November 1989, less than three months after Bluepeace was formed, the first small states conference on sea level rise was held in the Maldives. As a dramatic conclusion to the conference, a demonstration was held in Male’, in which students and the general public spoke on the imminent dangers of living in a low-lying country. A large billboard placed by Bluepeace asked the question “Do you know we are just four feet above sea level?”

Bluepeace was vocal, even at 2 months. Photo by Nalaka Gunawardene: Male, November 1989

I’m not a professional photographer, but as a journalist I often carry a camera and take photos of what interests me. So I’m very glad to have captured that historic bill board as a journalist covering the conference. Bluepeace still uses it in their records, always with acknowledgement.

Ali Rilwan, Bluepeace co-founder whom I photographed as a young man, says: “Twenty years later, we need not ask the same question, as the world is well-aware of the dangers Maldives faces. However, we face the urgent need to talk and work with the rest of the world to find solutions.”

Now, Bluepeace is actively using photographs as part of their climate advocacy.


Images from the frontlines of climate impact...

VULNERABLE is a photo exhibition organised by Bluepeace. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Bluepeace, and to join the global environmental movement bringing attention to the dangers of climate change in the run up to United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP15), Bluepeace presents VULNERABLE, which showcases the face of climate change in the Maldives. The exhibition documents the vulnerability of the fragile coral islands of the Maldives to climate change, through pictures from talented Maldivian photographers. It depicts a nation under threat, as it tries to safeguard an age-old culture and lifestyle that could be erased with rising seas and climate change.

VULNERABLE was launched online on October 24, the International Day of Climate Action organised by 350.org, which calls for a reduction of global carbon emissions below 350 parts per million.

In the coming weeks and months the exhibition will move to different locations in the Maldives and other countries, including Copenhagen in December 2009, where it will be hosted by Klimaforum09, an alternate climate summit with participation from global environmental movements and civil society organisations.

I can’t wait to see the exhibit in a physical display, which is more powerful than viewing it online. For now, here are some glimpses…

vulnerable image

Under seige from the deep blue?


Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose

WCSJ London

News by definition looks for the exception. What goes right, and according to plan, is hardly news. Deviations, aberrations and accidents hit the news.

It’s the same with disasters. Reducing a hazard or averting a disaster does not make the news; when that hazard turns into a disaster, that typically tops the news. Yet, as we discussed during a session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009, both aspects are important — and both present many challenges to journalists and the media.

The session, titled Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka, saw three science journalists share their own experiences and insights in covering two major disasters in Asia. Richard Stone (Asia News Editor, Science) and Hujun Li (senior science writer with Caijing magazine, China) both spoke about covering the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12 May 2008. I spoke on my experiences in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004. The session was chaired by the veteran (and affable) British journalist Tim Radford, who has been The Guardian‘s arts editor, literary editor and science editor.

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

I recalled the post-tsunami media coverage in two phases — breaking news phase (first 7 – 10 days) and the aftermath, which lasted for months. When the news broke on a lazy Sunday morning, ‘Tsunami’ was a completely alien term for most media professionals in Sri Lanka. In newspaper offices, as well as radio and TV studios, journalists suddenly had to explain to their audiences what had happened, where and how. This required journalists to quickly educate themselves, and track down geologists and oceanographers to obtain expert interpretation of the unfolding events. We than had to distill it in non-technical terms for our audiences.

My involvement in this phase was as a regular ‘TV pundit’ and commentator on live TV broadcasts of MTV Channels, Sri Lanka’s largest and most popular broadcast network. Night after night on live TV, we talked about the basics of tsunami and earthquakes, and summed up the latest information on what had taken place. We also acknowledged the limits of science -– for example, despite advances in science and technology, there still was no way of predicting earthquakes in advance.

One question we simply couldn’t answer was frequently raised by thousands of people who lost their loved ones or homes: why did it happen now, here — and to us? Was it an act of God? Was it mass scale karma? As science journalists, we didn’t want to get into these debates — we had to be sensitive when public emotions were running high.

There were enough topics during the breaking news phase that had a scientific angle. Clinically cold as it sounded, the mass deaths required the safe, proper and fast burial of bodies with identities established. The survivors had to be provided shelter, food, safe drinking water and counselling. And when rumours were spreading on the possibility of further tsunamis, both officials and public needed credible information from trusted, competent sources.

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

After the breaking news phase passed, we had more time to pursue specific stories and angles related to the tsunami. As an environmentally sensitive journalist, I was naturally interested in how the killer waves had impacted coastal ecosystems. Then I heard some interesting news reports – on how some elements of Nature had buffered certain locations from Nature’s own fury.

Within days, such news emerged from almost all Tsunami-affected countries. They talked about how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes had helped protect some communities or resorts by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against the Tsunami waves. These had not only saved many lives but, in some cases, also reduced property damage. Scientists already knew about this phenomenon, called the ‘greenbelt effect’. Mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes may not fully block out tsunamis or cyclones, but they can often reduce their impact.

Researching this led to the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s regional TV series called The Greenbelt Reports, which was filmed at a dozen tsunami impacted locations in South and Southeast Asia. By the time we released the series in December 2006, sufficient time had passed for the affected countries to derive environmental lessons of the tsunami.

The other big story I closely followed was on early warnings for rapid on-set disasters like tsunamis. Some believed that the tsunami caught Indian Ocean rim countries entirely by surprise, but that wasn’t quite true. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia were largely unprepared to act on the tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity, did issued a tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake off western Sumatra. This was received at Sri Lanka’s government-run seismological centre in good time, but went unheeded: no one reacted with the swiftness such information warranted. Had a local warning been issued, timely coastal evacuation could have saved thousands.

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Part of my sustained coverage focused on logistical, technological and socio-cultural challenges in delivering timely, credible and effective early warnings to communities at risk. I did this by writing opinion essays on SciDev.Net and elsewhere, partnering in the HazInfo action research project in Sri Lanka, and leading the Communicating Disasters Asian regional project. A lasting outcome is the multi-author book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in December 2007.

All this shows the many and varied science or development stories that journalists can find in the aftermath of disasters. Some of these are obvious and widely covered. Others need to be unearthed and researched involving months of hard work and considerable resources. Revisiting the scenes of disasters, and talking to the affected people weeks or months after the event, often brings up new dimensions and insights.

My own advice to science journalists was that they should leave the strictly political stories to general news reporters, and instead concentrate on the more technical or less self-evident facets in a disaster. During discussion, senior journalist Daniel Nelson suggested that all disaster stories are inherently political as they deal with social disparities and inequalities. I fully agreed that a strict separation of such social issues and science stories wasn’t possible or desirable. However, science journalists are well equipped to sniff out stories that aren’t obviously covered by all members of the media pack that descends on Ground Zero. Someone needs to go beyond body counts and aid appeals to ask the hard questions.

As Hujun Li said recalling the post-Sichuan quake experience, “Politics and science are like twins – we can’t separate the two. What we as science journalists can do is to gather scientific evidence and opinion before we critique official policies or practices.”

Another question we were asked was how journalists can deal with emotions when they are surrounded by so much death and destruction in disaster scenes. Reference was made to trauma that some reporters experience in such situations.

I said: “We are human beings first and journalists next, so it’s entirely normal for us to be affected by what is happening all around us. On more than one occasion in the days following the tsunami, I spoke on live television with a lump in my throat; I know of presenters who broke down on the air when emotions overwhelmed them.”

SciDev.Net blog post: Finding the science in the midst of disaster

And now...the sequels

And now...the sequels

Summing up, Tim Radford emphasized the need for the media to take more interest in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which basically means preventing disasters or minimising the effects of disasters.

“DRR is perhaps less ‘sexy’ for the media, as it involves lots of policies and practices sustained over time,” he said. “But the potential to do public good through these interventions is enormous.”

As Tim reminded us, disasters already exact a terrible and enduring toll on the poorest countries. This is set to get worse as human numbers increase and climate change causes extreme weather and creates other adverse impacts. Living with climate change would require sustained investments in DRR at every level.

Read Tim Radford on how disasters hit the poor the hardest (The Guardian, 22 May 2009).

The stories are out there to be captured, analysed and communicated. In the coming years, the best stories may well turn out to be on disasters averted or minimised

Somali pirates: Part of the story mainstream media hasn’t told us!

Do they have a story to tell? Who is listening?

Do they have a story to tell? Who is listening?

Piracy has a chequered history, and even the Wikipedia offers a carefully qualified definition. One person’s pirate can be another person’s defender. There’s an argument that the European colonial powers rode on the backs of their pirates or buccaneers. And I’m writing this in English language possibly because the English were more successful in their overseas piracy than other nations!

Piracy is all over the news again, due to increased activity off Somalia. But in the past few weeks, we’ve started hearing another side of the Somali piracy story — one that the mainstream media didn’t tell us.

Johann Hari, a columnist for the London Independent, posted an op ed in Huffington Post on 13 April 2009 that took a different look at Somali pirates. His main argument: “In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.”

In recent days, two interesting short videos have been posted by two activist groups to support the same point of view. I haven’t investigated this story myself, but am intrigued by their take on a widely reported topic…especially because it’s an angle that we don’t read or see in the mainstream media!

The Media Is Lying to You About Pirates

The IFC Media Project’s “News Junkie” deconstructs the mainstream media’s half-baked coverage of Somali Pirates.

Are They Really “Pirates”?

This film from Awareness Unfolds highlights the fact that the media is lying about the so called “pirates” of Somolia. According to the blurb: “They (media) choose not to tell you about the toxic waste dumping going on by American, European, and Asian countries that have lead to the death of many Somolian citizens.”

As Johann Hari says at the end of his article: “The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know “what he meant by keeping possession of the sea.” The pirate smiled, and responded: “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.” Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today – but who is the robber?”

Johann Hari has reported from Iraq, Israel/Palestine, the Congo, the Central African Republic, Venezuela, Peru and the US, and his journalism has appeared in publications all over the world. In 2007 Amnesty International named him Newspaper Journalist of the Year. In 2008 he became the youngest person ever to win Britain’s leading award for political writing, the Orwell Prize.

Early Warning for Planet Earth: How to avoid mother of all Tsunamis!

Next tsunami could begin with this...

Next tsunami could begin with this...

Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

The tsunami was triggered by a massive quake that erupted off the coast of Sumatra, and 6 miles deep under the Indian Ocean’s seabed. The estimated 9.1 to 9.3 magnitude earthquake was the strongest in 40 years and the fourth largest in a century. The U.S. Geological Survey later estimated that the amount of energy released was equivalent to the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all affected people were taken completely by surprise. There were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn those living on the Indian Ocean rim areas. This cost the lives of over 225,000 people in 11 countries — many of who could have lived if only they had a timely warning to rush inland.

In the past four years, there have been various efforts to set up such early warning systems – as well as effective ways to deliver credible warnings to large numbers of people quickly. These are meant to provide 24/7 coverage to Indian Ocean countries in the same way the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre has been covering Pacific Ocean countries for many years.

All this is necessary – but not sufficient – to guard ourselves against future tsunamis. For it’s not just earthquakes undersea that can trigger tsunamis. An asteroid impact could trigger the mother of all tsunamis that can impact coastal areas all over the planet.

An asteroid that struck the Earth 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and 70 per cent of the species then living on the planet. The destruction of the Tunguska region of Siberia in June 1908 – whose centenary was marked this year – is known to have been caused by the impact of a large extraterrestrial object.

Space artist David Hardy's vision...

Space artist David Hardy's vision...

When discussing the possible consequences of asteroid impacts on Earth, more attention has been given to the destruction it can cause by such a falling piece of the sky hitting inhabited areas of land. Some people seem to be comforted by the fact that two thirds of the planet’s surface is ocean — thus increasing changes that an impact would likely happen at sea.

In fact, we should worry more. Duncan Steel, an authority on the subject, has done some terrifying calculations. He took a modest sized space rock, 200 metres in diameter, colliding with Earth at a typical speed of 19 kilometres per second. As it is brought to a halt, it releases kinetic energy in an explosion equal to 600 megatons of TNT — 10 times the yield of the most powerful nuclear weapon tested (underground). Even though only about 10 per cent of this energy would be transferred to the tsunami, such waves will carry this massive energy over long distances to coasts far away. They can therefore cause much more diffused destruction than would have resulted from a land impact. In the latter, the interaction between the blast wave and the irregularities of the ground (hills, buildings, trees) limits the area damaged. On the ocean, the wave propagates until it runs into land.

Scientists have been talking about asteroid impact danger for decades. Arthur C Clarke suggested – in his 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama – that as soon as the technology permitted, we should set up powerful radar and optical search systems to detect Earth-threatening objects. The name he suggested was Spaceguard, which, together with Spacewatch, has now been widely accepted.

In November 2008, a group of the world’s leading scientists urged the United Nations to establish an international network to search the skies for asteroids on a collision course with Earth. The spaceguard system would also be responsible for deploying spacecraft that could destroy or deflect incoming objects.

The group – which includes the Royal Society president Sir Martin Rees and environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell – said that the UN needed to act as a matter of urgency. Although an asteroid collision with the planet is a relatively remote risk, the consequences of a strike would be devastating.

Not if, but when...

Not if, but when...

The International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, chaired by former American astronaut Russell Schweickart, urged: “The international community must begin work now on forging three impact prevention elements – warning, deflection technology and a decision-making process – into an effective defence against a future collision.”

Read more media coverage and commentary at:
The Guardian, 7 Dec 2008: UN is told that Earth needs an asteroid shield
World Changing, 10 Dec 2008: Giant asteroids and international security

This is exactly the message in an excellent documentary called Planetary Defence made by Canadian filmmaker M Moidel, who runs the Space Viz production company. Over the past many months, the film has been screened at the United Nations, on various TV channels and at high level meetings of people who share this concern.

Its main thrust: Scientists and the military have only recently awakened to the notion that asteroid impacts with Earth do happen. Planetary Defense meets with both the scientific and military communities to study our options to mitigate an impact. It makes the pivotal point: “Civilization is ill prepared for the inevitable. It’s not if an impact will happen with the Earth, it’s when!”

In such an event, the film asks, who will save Earth? The 48 minute documentary explores the efforts underway to detect and mitigate an impact with Earth from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEO’s (Near Earth Objects).

Watch the trailer of Planetary Defence on YouTube:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Director, American Museum of Natural History, in New York, says: “Planetary Defense, the film, is a documentary that explores how ill-prepared we are to prevent our own extinction from asteroid and comet impacts. Filmmaker M Moidel interviewed all the right people, asked them all the right questions, and leaves the viewer scared for our future, but empowered to do something about it.”

Read more about the film at Space Viz Productions website

Although we have never met, I have been in email contact with M Moidel for several years. I know how deeply committed he is to each of his documentary projects. Working on incredibly tight budgets and performing multiple tasks on his own, this brilliant Canadian has made some eminently accessible, timely and captivating documentaries on ‘big picture’ topics such as the search for intelligent life in the universe, the future of space exploration and, of course, coping with asteroid impacts.

Sir Arthur C Clarke, interviewed on some of Moidel’s films, including Planetary Defence, has highly commended his efforts.

Sir Arthur, whose Sri Lankan diving school was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, wrote a few days after the disaster:

“Contrary to popular belief, we science fiction writers don’t predict the future — we try to prevent undesirable futures. In the wake of the Asian tsunami, scientists and governments are scrambling to set up systems to monitor and warn us of future hazards from the sea.

“Let’s keep an eye on the skies even as we worry about the next hazard from the depths of the sea.”

Listen to our Planet in Distress: Arthur C Clarke’s Last Call

Author and underwater explorer Arthur C Clarke, who died last week aged 90, may not have been a placard-carrying, greener-than-green environmental activist. But in his own unique style, he supported a range of environmental concerns – from the conservation of gorillas, whales and dolphins (among his favourite species) to the search for cleaner energy sources that would enable humanity to kick its addiction to oil.

This interest was sustained to the very end. In his last public speech delivered a month before his demise, he stressed: “There has never been a greater urgency to restore our strained relationship with the Earth.”

The speech was an audio greeting to the global launch of the International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE), held on 12 – 13 February 2008 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Sir Arthur provided the closing remarks for the 2-day meeting attended by diplomats, scientists and youth from all corners of the world.

In that address, which he had recorded from his sick bed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in early February, Sir Arthur said:
“The International Year of Planet Earth is being observed at a crucial juncture in our relationship with the planet. There are now clear signs that our growing numbers and our many activities are impacting the Earth’s natural systems, causing planetary stress.”


He added: “We have had local or regional indicators of this stress for decades, and more recently we have confirmed our unmistakable role in climate change. If we’re looking for the smoking gun, we only need to look in the mirror…”

He outlined his wish for the ambitious IYPE, which is led by geoscientists around the world to raise more awareness and inspire action on understanding how our planet works. “I sincerely hope that the Year of Planet Earth would mark a turning point in how we listen to Earth’s distress call — and how we respond to it with knowledge, understanding and imagination.”

The full text of Sir Arthur’s greeting is found as a pdf on IYPE’s official website, which also offers the actual greeting as an audio file – but only in Apple Quicktime. For those who are not part of that limited universe, I reproduce Sir Arthur’s speaking text in full below.

I had the privilege of once again working on this text with Sir Arthur as I did for many years on various other video/audio greetings and essays. This was originally going to be a video greeting, but we decided to just capture it in audio as Sir Arthur was confined to bed with a back injury since early 2008.

Listen to the audio track on TVEAP’s YouTube channel:

Audio greeting by Sir Arthur C Clarke
to the global launch event of International Year of Planet Earth 2008
UNESCO Headquarters, Paris: 12 – 13 February 2008

Hello! This is Arthur Clarke, speaking from my home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

I’m very happy to join you on this occasion, when the International Year of Planet Earth is being inaugurated at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

I’m sorry that my health does not permit me to join you in person.
I have fond memories of attending major international conferences at UNESCO over the years. I’ve always cherished my close association with the organisation, especially since I received the UNESCO-Kalinga prize for popularisation of science in 1961 – a date that now seems to belong to the Jurassic era!

The International Year of Planet Earth is being observed at a crucial juncture in our relationship with the planet. There are now clear signs that our growing numbers and our many activities are impacting the Earth’s natural systems, causing planetary stress. We’ve had local or regional indicators of this stress for decades, and more recently we’ve confirmed our unmistakable role in climate change. If we’re looking for the smoking gun, we’ve only got to look in the mirror…

So there has never been a greater urgency to restore our strained relationship with the Earth.

In such a conversation, who speaks for the Earth?

Almost 30 years ago, my late friend astronomer Carl Sagan posed this question in his trail-blazing television series Cosmos. And this is how he answered it:
“Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves, but also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring!”

I sincerely hope that the Year of Planet Earth would mark a turning point in how we listen to Earth’s distress call — and how we respond to it with knowledge, understanding and imagination.

My mind goes back to the International Geophysical Year, which was observed in 1957 – 58. Both the former Soviet Union and the United States launched artificial satellites during that period, thus ushering in the Space Age. Going to space was an important evolutionary step for our species – one that distinguishes our period in history from all the preceding ones. For the first time, we could look back on our home planet from a vantage point in space, and that gave us a totally new perspective.

The beautiful images of Earth from space inspired much public interest that led to the Earth Day and the global environmental movement in the 1970s.

Of course, I’ve suggested that ‘Earth’ is a complete misnomer for our planet when three quarters of it is covered by ocean. But I guess it’s a bit too late now to change the name to planet Ocean!

Fifty years after the IGY and the dawn of the Space Age, do we know enough about how our planet operates?

Thanks to advances in earth sciences and space sciences, we have unravelled many mysteries that baffled scientists for generations. We now monitor the land, atmosphere and ocean from ground-based and space-based platforms. Armies of scientists are pouring over tera-bytes of data routinely gathered by our many sentinels keeping watch over our planet.

We don’t yet fully understand certain phenomena, and there are still gaps in how we process and disseminate scientific knowledge. This is why, for example, the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 arrived without public warnings in Sri Lanka and many other coastal regions. Within minutes of the undersea quake off Sumatra, geologists and oceanographers around the world knew what was happening. But they lacked the means of reaching authorities who could evacuate people to safety.

For this reason, I’m very glad to hear that the Year of Planet Earth is placing equal emphasis on creating new knowledge and its public outreach. Today, more than ever, we need the public understanding and engagement of science. As UNESCO has been advocating for 60 years, public engagement is essential for
science to influence policy and improve lives.

In fact, with our planet under stress, we often have to act before we fully understand some natural processes. That is where we have to combine our best judgement and imagination.

We also need to change the way our resources and energy are used. Our modern civilisation depends on energy, but we can’t allow oil and coal to slowly bake all life on our planet. In my 90th birthday reflections a few weeks ago, I listed three wishes I dearly want to see happen. One of them is to kick our current addiction to oil, and instead adopt clean energy sources. For over a decade, I’ve been monitoring various new energy experiments, which have yet to produce commercial scale results. Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency to this quest.

So we face many challenges as we embark on the International Year of Planet Earth. I hope this year’s many activities will help us to better listen to our home planet, and then to act with knowledge and imagination.

This is Arthur Clarke, wishing you every success in this endeavour.

Earth Day Flag

Listen to the audio file on IYPE website (only with Apple Quicktime)