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Keeping the pulse of the planet

Kathryn Sullivan and the other astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger enjoyed this view of the Himalayas in 1984.

Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, remembers how the earth appeared when she saw it from the Space Shuttle Challenger in October 1984.

“I looked down at our beautiful planet and thought: I have to figure out what all this means,” Sullivan, a veteran of three shuttle missions, said during a presentation in Packard Auditorium last week.

Sullivan left NASA in 1993 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she is now acting administrator. NOAA issues monthly, annual and ten-year climate reports as well as warnings of tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts and other severe-weather events. Increasingly, she said, the agency utilizes social media to disseminate information and to hear from people in danger zones.

The key to overcoming disasters, said Sullivan, is not just preparedness, but resilience.

“Resilience is two things. The first is multiple lines of defense. This includes natural, social, economic and physical defenses. The second is sustaining the flow of environmental intelligence.

“Environmental intelligence is critical for this beautiful, but dynamic place that we call home. We must be keeping the pulse of our planet.”

The benefits of sharing perspectives

Following her presentation, Sullivan joined a panel of Lehigh faculty members from several disciplines to discuss environmental responsibility.

The panel included professors Dork Sahagian, Joan Ramage and Ben Felzer of the department of earth and environmental sciences, in addition to Maria Figueroa-Armijos, professor of practice in the department of economics, and David Casagrande, associate professor of anthropology.

The panel discussed global climate change in relation to subjects such as economics, political science and engineering. They returned several times to the difficulty in bringing all branches of knowledge together.

Figueroa-Armijos, who teaches a course on environmental economics, said including professionals from all different points of view would benefit discussions about what she called the earth’s ongoing degradation. The current tendency, she said, is to separate these disciplines.

“But that’s not the way the planet functions,” she added. “We need to create settings where we can work like it does: together.”

Panel members seemed to agree that considering multiple perspectives could benefit environmental intelligence and foster a feeling of shared responsibility for the earth’s wellbeing.

Sahagian stressed the need for clear communication.

“We need to get out of the scientific box and talk in a language that the public understands,” he said. “People have to realize the problems that we are facing before we ask them to take action.”

Felzer suggested putting less emphasis on climate change and more on the greater scope of environmental degradation such as overfishing, coastal erosion and depletion of natural resources.

“People may not be able to wrap their head around climate change,” he added, “but they can’t deny the general stress the earth has been going under.”

Sullivan’s presentation and the panel discussion were made possible by the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of Sustainability, LiveLehigh, the Engineering House, the Green House and Green Action.

Story by Jaime DellaPelle '14

Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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