The Death of 'Green' Satellites

The government is cutting funds to the tools that climate researchers need most -- the satellite and sensor networks that study the way humans are impacting climate change.
Government-funded satellite systems and sensor networks are supposed to be spook stuff, technologies for surveillance and social control. They're the "electric eyes" that follow us and turn our private lives into sitcoms for bored intelligence agents, right? Wrong. They may be spooky, but satellite and sensor networks are some of the most powerful tools for studying the way humans are impacting climate change. They allow scientists to create maps showing how land use affects climate, as well as how chemical emissions are linked to rainfall, water levels, temperature fluctuations and ozone depletion.

And now, according to a distressing report last week from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, the government is cutting funds to the tools that climate researchers need most. In this report, researchers write that the National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System has been severely downsized, "eliminating several key climate instruments," while rollout on four new systems for measuring atmospheric changes has been delayed or cancelled. At the same time, the government has failed to maintain observatories on the ground devoted to climate change and is scaling back on an ocean climate sensor system called the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean buoy array.

Parts of the CCSP's report are essentially a plea for more sensor networks. We need good data from these networks to create realistic models of global climate change, the researchers say. But more important, scientists need that data to figure out the best ways for people to intervene and make the future greener. That's why we need sensor networks sampling the air from high above the Arctic and across the ocean, proving that cutting back on carbon emissions can lower temperatures or prevent hurricanes from forming. We need good satellite maps showing exactly how urban developments are destroying local forests.

For these reasons, the report emphasizes that the biggest problem faced by the CCSP is an inability to implement policies for change. CCSP researchers are frustrated that the data they've compiled rarely make it into policy recommendations to the government. And only $30 million of the CCSP's $1.7 billion dollar budget is allocated to programs that investigate the impact of environmental changes on human beings.

Just as news of this report was breaking, New York environmental group Blacksmith Institute released a list of the 10 most polluted places on Earth. Created by the group's technical advisory board, and based entirely on how much impact the pollution has on local human populations, the list is topped by regions in the industrializing world: Sumjayit, an industrial manufacturing city in Azerbaijan; Linfen and Tianying, coal and lead mining towns in China; and Sukinda and Vapi, chemical mining and manufacturing areas in India. Also included are similar areas in Russia and Peru.

People in the regions highlighted by the Blacksmith Institute are getting cancer and lung disease, as well as passing birth defects on to their children. If we want to prevent the entire world from becoming like Sumjayit -- and indeed, to prevent people in Sumjayit from suffering the worst side effects of industrialization -- we need the very kinds of data that CCSP scientists worry we can no longer get. As climate sensor networks decay, and green satellites die, so too does the hope that we can build a better climate model, a sane climate model based on how changing social behaviors.

So if you think that having one less satellite in the sky is a good idea, think again. And if you think that the only thing a sensor network can do is invade privacy, think again about that too. As ever, the problem isn't with technology; it's with who controls it.
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