Talking About Climate Change Is No Longer Enough: NASA Hints The Time Is Now Urgent

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The past year has seen another round of record-breaking high and low temperatures, a tumultuous hurricane season, apocalyptic wildfires, and torrential flooding. In a year where Texas literally froze over, however, this ceases to be a conversation limited to elevators, barber shops and first dates. The time for small talk is over – let’s talk about our changing climate.

According to Council on Foreign Relations, even if all goals of the Paris Climate Agreement were achieved, it still would not be enough to avoid the global average temperature from rising and the devastating environmental consequences that come with it. We are very likely to suffer more unusual weather events (weirder climate is a term I like) in the coming years and the warming of the climate that seems to cause it will continue into the foreseeable future. Dr. Karen St. Germain, NASA’s Director of Earth Sciences, said to me this week, “These risks extend to every part of the U.S. and the world, to every economic sector, and to nearly every aspect of human well-being.” 

Of course, we are pretty sure another Ice Age will eventually come too, but that isn’t likely for a while. Another magnetic pole flip is also something else scientists are researching the likelihood of. As each of these trends are tracked and we increasingly experience weirder climate, policymakers must no longer deny the urgency and lead. They must plan the necessary actions needed for an increasingly unpredictable, and likely daunting, environmental future. Weirder climate, as it seems to be happening, will be inducing interconnected global problems requiring individual and group action. Space systems can be integral to understanding, planning, and adapting to our changing environment.

Pushing past the remaining few who still dispute the causes, our policy leaders must move on from that debate and decide what the government’s proper role must be in leading humanity to better survive. Coastal seas are rising, extreme weather events are becoming more common, and migrations of refugees due directly or indirectly to these events are in mass exodus.

Anticipating weather before it happens has proven to be economically and operationally useful, but what is especially important today is to realize that we cannot go back to a pre-industrial age world – we have to put together a viable apparatus to help everyone adapt. Everyone from senior government leaders to small business owners now have a responsibility to learn, organize, plan, and act on a comprehensive strategy of adaptation to survive.

Many changes have occurred to the climate over the hundreds of thousands of years modern humans have been roaming the planet. In fact, most of what we look like, where and how we live, and what we eat has been shaped by climate changes. Evidence indicates, though, that epoch-level changes such as glacial stages and massive flooding very likely exacted enormous casualties. There have been “dramatic advances in technology and commercial sector investment that are creating new ways to observe and understand the earth,” Dr. St Germain says. 

In this modern era, we have the technology to both understand and predict our world and, more importantly, to plan and adapt for our survival and future prosperity.

The military, ever pragmatic despite the political crossfire that seems to consume everything, has been steadfast in planning for this, under the leadership of the Trump administration and now under President Biden. Sea lanes are already opening in the Arctic that will trigger territory disputes, coastal military bases will likely need to be moved, and more robust weather prediction will become a necessity. Secretary of Defense Austin has signaled it as a key goal and has commissioned a group to further accelerate implementation plans already being executed.

We need an urgent sense for a holistic government approach that picks up where military needs end and sees the goals we set through to completion. Every person in civil government will need similar tools to help them make the right decisions their citizens expect. 

We do not need Apollo program funding levels to get this done. What we need are the right kinds of public-private partnership policies. “Working together, we can create the observations at the accuracy, time and spatial scales the U.S. will need to build resilient communities, support sustainable agriculture, assess air quality and biodiversity, and manage water resources,” Dr. St Germain says. Policies such as these would accelerate introduction of existing commercial technologies into a favorable commercial space ecosystem. Partnerships today will lead to a marketplace of systems, services, and ideas for a space century. 

To apply world class AI to the challenge, more data is the first step. Our government needs to begin procuring extremely low-cost off-the-shelf systems and services that collect useful space data and encourage open-source analysis; much like was done with Landsat data beginning in the 1970s. 

Whether through a commercial data service or outright procurement of low-cost commercially sourced satellite constellations, this data must be provisioned urgently so that state and local governments, and eventually like-minded nations can begin sharing insights with analytics companies. These next generation analytics companies will be essential in the adaptation of every sector of the economy for this rapidly approaching new normal.

Earth Day is coming again soon, and with it the usual yawn, “Yeah, we really should do something about that!” Let this be the year we finally address the urgency of our situation and agree to plan for our adaptation. We have no choice if we are to overcome the tsunami of “weirder” climate events that have already begun. 

Even among the biggest proponents of the Paris agreement, the consensus seems to be that there is nothing we can really do to actually stop a climate shift. We need our public and our policymakers to stare that fact in the face and devise a plan to actually deal with it, rather than buying a hybrid car and calling it good. Our grandchildren will thank us for it.

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