February 22, 2011

It’s Final Frontier Week!

Last week we witnessed a new high in anti-climate change
posturing in Washington (or should I say pro-climate change?), to include extreme
like de-funding the position of the U.S. climate change
negotiator. This week, we hope to focus on good news: tomorrow NASA is
launching Glory, our fine nation’s
next satellite critical to understanding our changing world.

The pending climate change drama that many Congressmen and
Senators are promising is on the way will surely include hearings on climate
science. In past statements, top administration science officials have
the opportunity to recount for the public, once again, that the
vast majority of scientists in the world
agree on the basics of climate change happening, the range of effects and the
human contributions to the phenomenon. Given the evolutionary nature of all
science, however, there are still many related dynamics that scientists feel we
need more information about in order for them to add more detail to climate
projections. Luckily, scientists know enough about the changing climate and its
causes to know exactly where additional research, data collection and
experimentation are most needed.

One of those areas of necessary new research is how aerosols
can affect the climate. This is where Glory will come into play. As NASA describes:
“The Glory mission will provide the highly accurate aerosol and solar
irradiance measurements that are vital to providing planet models and
accurately predicting Earth's future climate.”

For any of our fellow security types out there, the last 5
words will ring as especially important. It’s great that climate science has
come so far in the past several decades in terms of understanding the causes
and general nature of the changing climate. But when we social science analysts
ask physical scientists questions like, “How will the changing climate affect rivers
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where water projects and related development
initiatives will be an important part of post-conflict reconstruction that’s so
critical to U.S. interests?” you tend to get answers such as “We can give you
an answer in about 8 months once we run all the relevant models, and then we
may or may not know with much certainty depending on a wide range of factors.”
Creating better understanding of how particles in the atmosphere work, as Glory
will do, will have direct implications for the quality of climate projections
that policy makers need as they develop future scenarios and work to hedge
against different courses of world events, all for the bottom line of promoting
the nation’s core interests long into the future.

We’ll be celebrating Glory’s launch tomorrow (as we also
toast my brother, Chris, for his birthday – Happy Birthday brother!). But at
the same time, we’re deeply concerned that funding for future environmental
monitoring satellites will be cut by this Congress. The United States is
already just a few years away from a capability gap in data collection as many
old systems – some past their scheduled retirements – fall offline and are
decommissioned. This is a focus of a current project we’re working on:

Just as the U.S. government is working to integrate
environmental change into its smart power approach to security and foreign
policy, critical tools for conducting this work are at risk. The United States
is facing a looming capability gap in its earth monitoring systems that provide
geospatial data, radar imaging, and other information crucial to responding to
disasters, monitoring environmental change and population movement, and
verifying international treaties with billions of dollars on the line. By 2016,
for example, only seven of NASA’s current 13 earth monitoring satellites are
expected to be in operation. Previous programs aimed at addressing this problem
were plagued by skyrocketing costs, chronic delays, and poor interagency


The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is
leading a project to evaluate how American policymakers are relying on earth
monitoring systems related to environmental and climate change in foreign
policy and security planning. CNAS will convene top experts and stakeholders to
examine ways to shrink this capability gap through international cooperation,
intelligence declassification, and targeted investments. CNAS experts will use
this research to map a way forward for policymakers that will ensure that the
United States can sustain this crucial capability.

The project’s news and publications will be posted here, and we’ll use the blog to
explore related issues in depth and to provide updates on our work. In the
meantime, this is Final Frontier week, where we’ll explore a few space
technology topics directly relevant to the field of natural security. We hope
you find space tech as cool and important to this country’s leadership as we
do, and that you can join us in a toast to Glory tomorrow. Here’s hoping the
launch goes as planned!