May 31, 2011

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
,” 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:

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
. At 2 PM, CSIS will look at the Geopolitics of Clean

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