Earth Observation Science, Public Policymaking, and the Trump Administration – Huffington Post
Now that President-elect Trump has left the rhetoric of the campaign trail, it is time to face the facts that confront the American government. Elements of economic and demographic life provide great challenges to our governments and leaders here in America and around the world. There are over seven billion people on the planet, and if economic growth continues along with better health care and birth control, human population will probably peak at 9 or 10 billion. Without immigration, population growth would have already stopped in wealthy urban nations; Japan, which resists immigration, is starting to lose population.
Whatever number human population peaks at, the planet’s economic output and use of natural resources is advancing at a ferocious rate. India and China, two nations of over a billion people each, are chewing up the planet faster than ever. The political pressure for rapid economic development is constant and deeply felt by the governing elites in the developing world. It is fed by the seductive images of wealthier life styles communicated for free over the ever spreading World Wide Web. A world of economic growth is a fact and we need to learn how to manage and maintain that world. The political stability we enjoy in the United States, Japan, and Europe is built on economic growth.
Another fact of life is that it is too late to live at one with nature and go back to the land. There are simply too many people and there is too little land. And so we need to live in cities that provide what people seek while having the least possible impact on the food, water and air that our species requires to live. We need to decouple economic growth from the growth of the consumption of finite resources. Technology and lifestyle changes such as the sharing economy could make that possible.
All of this seems obvious, but the problem is that we know too little about the impact of humans on earth systems. We are learning, but the learning process can be quite difficult. This is seen dramatically in the battle between climate deniers and climate scientists. While some deny the fact of climate change, the more profound conflict is over the impacts of climate change, and what to do about those impacts. Some climate impacts are difficult to model and measure. Unlike air, water and land pollution, the impacts of climate change are often subtle and take longer to gestate. So climate scientists model climate as a partial cause of a complex event, such as sea level rise, drought, or extreme weather. Some also try to connect climate to changes in human behavior, such as the price of real estate or the possibility of war. While this work is worthy of pursuit, it tends to be exploratory. The impact of lead in a child’s drinking water, for example, is clear; the impact of climate change on human conflict is less clear.
It is true that environmental issues can lead to scarcity of water and food that exacerbate conflict and may push opposing forces over the edge from conflict to war. But wars have many causes and it is difficult to assign weights to the causes of conflict. A war could be a result of balance of power politics or leaders who are homicidal maniacs. Some of my colleagues trace the war in Syria to Middle Eastern drought that may have been made worse by climate change. That probably was the case. But sometimes nations and communities come together and respond positively to crises; they don’t always descend into civil war. In America, we had a horrible drought-induced ecological crisis in the Midwest from 1934-1937. Climate change caused immigration, but not large-scale civil unrest, during the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The U.S. had an ecological disaster where poor cultivation methods destroyed the productivity of farm soil and led to a mass migration and a decline in farm production. Fortunately, America in the 1930s only had a deep economic depression, not the Middle Eastern culture of conflict. We had a great leader in FDR, a new institution called the Soil Conservation Service, and a new economy in the west (especially California) to absorb climate refugees. About 2.5 million people fled from the states hit by this catastrophe, but after real struggle they found employment and hope in other parts of the United States. These examples demonstrate the complexity of predicting the impact of climate change.
The language of warnings of possible earth system impacts is the language of probability, not the language of certainty. No one knows the future. We do know, however, that the economic production and consumption of seven billion people is having a far from trivial impact on our planet. We also know that humans still need our ecological systems to provide the food, air and water that keeps us alive. We need to learn more about those impacts, not to stop the economic production that we benefit from, but to steer it and sustainably manage it so we can continue benefiting from the technological marvel that we live in. Earth system science is woefully underfunded by our federal government and we need more of it, not less of it.
When the impact of economic production is a toxic release that has a demonstrated impact, we have had some success in regulating those releases. When the impact is projected to happen in the future, we have had less success. This has led to a search for the current impacts of climate change, which are not always well-founded.
For example, this weekend, we saw Ian Urbina of the New York Times report that real estate values in coastal areas are not rising as quickly as elsewhere. Urbina observed that: “Nationally, median home prices in areas at high risk for flooding are still 4.4 percent below what they were 10 years ago, while home prices in low-risk areas are up 29.7 percent over the same period, according to the housing data.” His story noted that about 40% of the nation’s population lived by the coasts and that people in beach communities were reluctant to move. His point is that fear of climate change is depressing housing prices by the shore. In a response, columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal assigned that drop not to climate impacts, but to the declining federal subsidy for flood insurance and the dramatic increase in flood insurance rates. Jenkins argued that:
“When Teddy Roosevelt built his Sagamore Hill on Long Island, he did so a quarter mile from shore at an elevation of 115 feet not because he disdained proximity to the beach or was precociously worried about climate change. The federal government did not stand ready with taxpayer money to defray his risk. Estimates vary, but sea levels may have risen at two millimeters a year over the past century…On top of this, a “notable surge event” can produce a storm surge of seven to 23 feet, according to a federal list of 10 hurricanes over the past 70 years… But, to state the obvious, normal tidal variation plus storm surge is the danger to coastal property. Background sea-level rise is a non-factor. A FEMA study from several years ago found that fully a quarter of coastal dwellings are liable to be destroyed over a 50-year period.”