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Climate, Environment, and Conservation: Sustaining the Space Environment for the Future

I am delighted to be here today, in this appropriate setting, to discuss with you on one of the most interesting and important topics of the 21st century, the use of space-based technology to support economic growth, resource management, conservation, sustainable development, disaster management and security. Space has become so vital to our everyday lives – it is necessary to preserve the outer space environment in order to continue utilizing it for the benefit of all future generations. The need for international cooperation to maintain the long-term sustainability of the space environment is absolutely necessary and essential. I’d like to give you an update on United States efforts to strengthen the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security in space. And, I am here because I also would like to gain a better understanding of Filipino interests in space.

First of all, I’d like to offer my condolences on the devastation and suffering the people of the Philippines have sustained from super-typhoon Yolanda. According to the U.S. Joint Typhoon Warning Center, Yolanda was the most powerful storm ever recorded to strike on land, and its impact in the Philippines was devastating. But the Filipino people have confronted the challenge of this disaster with their now world-famous courage and spirit.

As you all probably know, space-based systems played a very important role in the international community’s humanitarian and disaster relief support to the Philippines. When Yolanda made landfall, Philippine authorities activated the International Charter [NB: “Charter On Cooperation To Achieve The Coordinated Use Of Space Facilities In The Event Of Natural Or Technological Disasters”] allowing the government to receive real time satellite imageries in assisting with the crisis. Data imagery enabled authorities to estimate the damaged infrastructure throughout the affected areas and to assist in decision making.

On a different note, last December there was an important milestone in international space cooperation: we observed the 50th anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space.” This resolution, which was adopted by consensus on December 13, 1963, laid out a number of key principles, including that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations.

In endorsing these principles, the UN General Assembly affirmed what had been key precepts of the U.S. National Space Policies of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Diplomatic historians note that the consensus on the 1963 Principles Declaration also benefited from an easing of superpower tensions after the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just over three years later, the Principles Declaration formed the core for the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which remains the foundation of the international legal framework for space activities.

In the half century since the Principles Declaration was adopted, all nations and peoples have seen a radical transformation in the way we live our daily lives, in many ways due to our use of space and the information we gain from space-based systems. The globe-spanning and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all of us. As a result, it is essential that all nations work together to adopt approaches for responsible activity in space to preserve this right for the benefit of future generations.

Just as our use of space has evolved since the first satellite, Sputnik, was launched on October 4, 1957, the space environment has also been transformed by actors and their actions. When the space age began, the opportunities to use space were available to only a few nations, and there were limited consequences for irresponsible behavior or accidents. Today approximately 60 nations and government consortia operate satellites, as well as numerous commercial and academic satellite operators. Many other nations, including the Philippines, rely on space technology for communications, satellite imagery, and weather forecasting. Remote sensing can also assist in environmental monitoring and disaster management, including planning and responding to natural disasters like Typhoon Yolanda. This great transformation of the space environment has greatly benefited the global economy and has brought people around the world closer together, but it also presents challenges.

While it is becoming increasingly easier to access, as well as to benefit from, space is also becoming increasingly congested. By “congested” I mean the amount of objects in space, not only active satellites, but also “space junk” – rocket parts, even astronauts’ tools. Some pieces of debris are simply “dead” satellites or pieces of the rockets that got them there, but others are the results of accidents or mishaps, such as from the 2009 collision between two satellites.

Some debris, however, is the result of intentionally destructive events, such as China’s test in space of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007. Irresponsible acts against space systems would not just harm the space environment, but would also disrupt services that we all depend on. The more of this space junk that gets generated, the more likely other satellites are going to be impacted, which could impact all of our daily lives. Ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment is in the vital interests of the United States and the entire global community. This situation means we need to think carefully through how we can all operate there safely and responsibly so that we can ensure that your generation, and the generations that follow you, can also benefit from space as well.

How do we achieve our goal of ensuring the long-term sustainability and stability of space? First, we need to enhance our shared situational awareness and understanding of what is in space, sharing information to avoid collisions of space objects, and working internationally to minimize the problems of orbital debris. To that end, the United States works with other nations, commercial entities, and intergovernmental organizations to improve our shared ability to rapidly detect, warn of, characterize, and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems, as well as dangerous approaches between orbiting objects that could potentially lead to collisions. Such improvements illustrate the ongoing commitment of the United States to promoting the safety of flight for all space-faring nations.

How do we deal with the growing problem of orbital debris? The United States has long recognized the importance of managing the creation of space debris and its effects on spaceflight safety. Central to the debris mitigation efforts are the United States Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, which served as the basis for space debris mitigation guidelines developed and adopted by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) in 2002, and the UNCOPUOS Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines approved by the UN General Assembly in 2007. In accordance with the 2010 U.S. National Space Policy, the United States is working closely with the United Nations and with other countries and organizations to continue to address the growing problem of space debris and to promote “best practices” for the sustainable use of space.

Finally, how do we promote safe and responsible operations in space? In the U.S. National Space Policy, President Obama directed the United States Government to pursue pragmatic transparency and confidence-building measures – or TCBMs – to strengthen stability in space and promote safe and responsible operations in space. TCBMs are a means by which governments can address challenges and share information with the aim of creating mutual understanding and reducing tensions. Through TCBMs we can address areas such as orbital debris, space situational awareness, and collision avoidance, as well as undertake activities that will help to increase familiarity and trust and encourage openness among space actors.

Perhaps one of the most beneficial TCBMs for ensuring sustainability and security in space could be the adoption of an International Code of Conduct. The United States is working with the European Union and other spacefaring nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. In the Asia-Pacific region, both Japan and Australia have also endorsed developing such a Code. In her statement announcing the U.S. decision to join the EU and other nations in developing a Code, former Secretary of State Clinton said,

“The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk. […] Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.”

An International Code of Conduct, if adopted, would help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust in space by establishing guidelines to reduce the risks of debris-generating events, including collisions. As more countries field space capabilities, it is in all of our interests to work together to establish internationally accepted “rules of the road” to ensure that the safety and sustainability of space is protected.

Another effort to address near-term, pragmatic TCBMs was the UN Group of Governmental Experts (or “GGE”) study, which reached consensus last July on a report that endorsed voluntary, pragmatic, and non-legally binding TCBMs to strengthen stability in space. The GGE was established by the UN General Assembly and included experts from fifteen UN Member States. Victor Vasiliev of Russia ably served as the Group’s chair. I was privileged to serve as the U.S. expert.

The GGE recommended that States and international organizations consider and implement a range of measures to enhance the transparency of outer space activities, further international cooperation, consultations and outreach, and promote coordination to enhance safety and predictability in the uses of outer space.

Following the official issuance of the GGE study to the 68th session of the UN General Assembly last fall, this report served as the basis for a consensus resolution on space TCBMs, which is a most appropriate commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Principles Declaration.

All nations are increasingly reliant on space, not only when disasters strike, but also for our day-to-day life. We need to protect and preserve our long-term interests by considering the risks that could harm the space environment and disrupt services on which the international community depends. For this reason, we must all work together and take action now to establish measures that will strengthen transparency and stability in outer space. This work towards TCBMs will enhance the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment. It is in the vital interests of the entire global community to protect the space environment not only for today, but for future generations.

Thank you very much.