This Weekend’s News: Still Lost in Translation?

There were several natural security-related news stories this weekend, including this announcement from Germany yesterday that the government will end its nuclear power program by 2022. But there is one story I wanted to point out specifically because it directly relates to a few projects we have been working on here at CNAS, including one on earth monitoring satellite systems and why they’re crucial to understanding the national security implications of climate change and environmental degradation.  

Yesterday, The New York Times reported on a set of satellites that scientists have been using to detect and monitor groundwater depletion from space. The program known as GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) “relies on the interplay of two nine-year-old twin satellites that monitor each other while orbiting the Earth, thereby producing some of the most precise data ever on the planet’s gravitational variations,” the Times reported. “The results are redefining the field of hydrology, which itself has grown more critical as climate change and population growth draw down the world’s fresh water supplies.”

There is an interesting thread running through the Times piece that reminds me of the work Jay Gulledge and I did for our 2010 Lost in Translation study. In that yearlong study, we identified that there is a gap between climate scientists and national security practitioners and offered recommendations to bridge that gap. But from the Times report, it is clear that the gap still exists. Take for example the skepticism surrounding GRACE’s findings in northern California:

Yet even as the data signal looming shortages, policy makers have been relatively wary of embracing the findings. California water managers, for example, have been somewhat skeptical of a recent finding by Dr. [Jay] Famiglietti [director of the University of California’s Center for Hydrologic Modeling] that from October 2003 to March 2010, aquifers under the state’s Central Valley were drawn down by 25 million acre-feet — almost enough to fill Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.   Greg Zlotnick, a board member of the Association of California Water Agencies, said that the managers feared that the data could be marshaled to someone else’s advantage in California’s tug of war over scarce water supplies. “There’s a lot of paranoia about policy wonks saying, ‘We’ve got to regulate the heck out of you,’ ” he said.

In our 2010 study we found that often times the political process is a hurdle to fostering relationships between climate scientists and policymakers that, in the long term, could help bridge this gap in meaningful ways: “Indeed, political and ideological divisiveness associated with climate change continues to undermine the development of trusting relationships between the producer and consumer communities,” we wrote.

But there is room for cautious optimism. Scientists working in the public policy space are starting to recognize that it is difficult to divorce themselves and their work from the political process entirely. (Of course, that is not to suggest that policy or politics should ever be the driver of science; in fact, quite the opposite.) But, as we noted in Lost in Translation, if scientists working in the public policy space are to play a more prominent role in getting the right information to decision makers, they have to be comfortable with the fact that while scientific information may enrich a policy debate, other factors, such as political considerations, are likely to play a role in the decision making process as well. That is not the most heartening lesson, but it is reality. And it is the reality that Dr. Famiglietti seems to be embracing:

While Dr. Famiglietti says he wants no part of water politics, he acknowledged that this might be hard to avoid, given that his role is to make sure the best data about groundwater is available, harvesting and disseminating all of the information he can about the Earth’s water supply as aquifers dry up and shortages loom. “Look, water has been a resource that has been plentiful,” he said. “But now we’ve got climate change, we’ve got population growth, we’ve got widespread groundwater contamination, we’ve got satellites showing us we are depleting some of this stuff. “I think we’ve taken it for granted, and we are probably not able to do that any more.”

The story has several great takeaways that resonate with the work we have been doing in the Natural Security program. But I think the big one, to come full circle, is that these earth monitoring and climate satellite systems play a crucial role in furthering our understanding of climate change and environmental degradation. The information we glean from these systems not only helps us better understand the science, but it can help policymakers identify potential hotspots where challenges stemming from water scarcity could become more difficult. Most importantly, though, these systems can help generate for policymakers the kind of information they need to integrate climate and environmental science into our national security planning. Without this crucial capability, the U.S. government would likely find it more difficult to respond to natural disasters, monitor environmental change and population movement, and verify international treaties with billions of dollars on the line (not to put too fine a point on it). The bottom line: it is a capability worth continuing to invest in. 

This Week’s Events

Already underway at Johns Hopkins SAIS this morning is a discussion looking After Fukushima: The Future of Nuclear Energy in the United States and Europe. Then at 10:30 AM, head to Brookings for China’s Low-Carbon Development.

On Wednesday at 9 AM, Brookings will hold a discussion on Responding to Natural Disasters. At 12:45 PM, Resources for the Future will host an event on Reforming Institutions and Managing Extremes: U.S. Policy Options for Adapting to Climate Change. At 2 PM, CSIS will look at the Geopolitics of Clean Energy.

On Thursday, the only event you need to be aware of is the Fifth Annual CNAS Conference. We hope to see you there!