America’s Real-World Challenge.

Here’s our situation in a nutshell.

United States debt stands at $14T and is growing rapidly. The economy is in the doldrums and has been since the downturn of 2008. Both worldwide and at home, challenges are multiplying in number; growing in magnitude, scope, and complexity; and coming fast.

Politics, economics, and national security will dominate America’s attention throughout the 21st century. Day-to-day the national agenda will likely focus on jobs, demographics, health care, education, terrorist threats, and war. But underlying each of these concerns will be the relationship of the world’s seven billion people with the solid Earth, the oceans, the atmosphere, and the plant and animal life that enable all human affairs. This dependency will grow increasingly visible throughout this century, but especially over the next ten years.

From a human standpoint, the Earth is at one and the same time: a resource; a victim; and a threat. To live safely and to prosper not just day-to-day but over spans of decades and centuries, we have to master all three dimensions to our complex yet vital relationship: simultaneously, locally and globally, and at all times. That is, we have to grow more effective at extracting from Earth the food, water, and energy we need, while at the same time maintaining Earth’s vital ecosystem services, and protecting ourselves from natural hazards. In fact, it is our limited ability to meet these goals that is a root cause of poverty, famine, environmental degradation, complex emergencies, business disruption, and other paramount world and national concerns.

To flourish in this future world, the Nation needs solutions and approaches to these challenges that 

–          Will work

–          Will work in time

–          Will work within the current constrained fiscal environment

At first blush, this looks daunting indeed . Past experience offers success stories, but also many failures. Time is short. And current and contemplated federal budget cuts look to be draconian.

Can we do this? Can we meet these fundamental 21st century challenges?

[Before proceeding further, note that failure to meet these challenges would have serious consequences indeed. It implies a downward spiral, where progressively, over a period of years, food production, water management, energy development and hazards mitigation efforts grow more expensive even as they become less effective. Those worldwide and domestically who are poor today will be most immediately impacted, and the adverse effects they will experience will be destabilizing, will fray the social fabric, will accelerate the deterioration of our future prospects. As we’ve heard repeatedly in recent days, with respect to the debt ceiling – a much lesser problem – failure is not an option.]


Two reasons for optimism

There are two reasons for cautious optimism: the progress we’ve made so far, and the resources we can bring to bear in the future.

Let’s begin with the enormous strides we’ve made just over the past century. Up until about 1900 – for virtually all of human experience, going back many tens of thousands of years – most people believed three things:

–          The assimilative capacity of the atmosphere is essentially infinite

–          Climate is unchanging

–          Weather is unpredictable.

Today, after the last 100 years of observation and research, Earth scientists have not simply tweaked these ageless assumptions, but turned each on its ear. We now know:

–          The assimilative capacity of the Earth and its atmosphere, even globally, is finite

–          The Earth’s atmosphere and oceans ceaselessly vary over every geographic region, and on all time horizons, from minutes to many millennia

–          And the weather is far more predictable than thought

Just by itself, for humanity to align our mindset properly with these realities has brought great value. We now share a proper conceptual framework on which to build. A science-based services community provides meteorological, hydrological and climatological forecasts and other products that daily repay their cost many times over.

However, the level of effort that has carried us this far looks to be inadequate to the present and future needs of seven billion people, requiring water, food, and energy at levels far exceeding those of a pre-industrial time, and experiencing unprecedented technological advance and social change. This emerging world needs more than broad generalizations whose utility is limited by substantial but poorly characterized uncertainties. It needs specifics: most pointedly predictions on what the Earth will do next – locally, and everywhere, on all time horizons – sufficiently timely and accurate to support decisions and actions at every level of society.

This is certainly true for the developed world, where cutting-edge technologies in agriculture, energy, and water-resource management, if they are to be employed to greatest effect, need state-of-the-art Earth observations, science, and service. Domestically, today’s emergency managers and public-health officials; agricultural, energy, transportation, and water-resource sectors; and even the insurance and financial sectors; use Earth observations, science, and services to guide day-to-day decisions as well as their long-range planning.

If anything, it is even more true for the developing world, which is increasingly relying on sale of natural resources to fuel economic growth. Africa is a special case in point. Africa’s prospects for economic development are pinned on sales of oil, ores, and the lease or sale of prime farmland to eager nation states ranging from China to the Arab world. Yet most African countries lack the data and the in-country scientific capacity needed to ensure they command a fair price.

Which brings up a second reason for optimism. Our present abilities to monitor the Earth, scientific understanding of those observations, and services based on that science and technology are unprecedented. Even so, there remains considerable economic incentive for improvement. What’s more – there are plenty of ideas for new technology and avenues for new research at hand. And the levels of funding put to this task are currently small – less than 0.1% of global GDP, leaving room for considerable further growth. The United States invests a considerable fraction of this total. By making better use of our present Earth observations, science and services, and by advancing those same capabilities, we can even more effectively unlock and use the Earth’s resources, maintain irreplaceable ecosystem services, and reduce the threat of natural hazards.

In the 20th century, the United States shaped the world of today – defending and spreading values of freedom and democracy through two world wars, and maintaining a strong defense posture since; and expanding economic prosperity through innovation at home, the Marshall Plan, and globalization of the world economy. Some have argued that this special role may be playing out…that the 21st century will be the century of India or China.

But the fact remains that if the United States will innovate, it can lead the 21st century world. If we formulate and pursue policies with respect to Earth observations, science, and services  wisely – policies drawing on capabilities and collaborations from both public- and private sectors, policies looking both domestically and internationally – the United States can make a contribution to humanity in the 21st century comparable to our 20th-century role. Working together, and using 21st century tools, we can achieve this relatively quickly and at reasonable cost, creating jobs and opportunities in the process.  

Securing America’s Future.

Towards these ends, and with its partners, the American Meteorological Society pursues four approaches that seem likely to meet the requirements of effectiveness, speed, and low cost:

–          Adjustments to the national public-policy framework: reexamination of resource-, environmental-, and hazards- policy with emphasis on synthesis

–          Leadership development: through an annual Summer Policy Colloquium and other measures

–          Emphasis on emergent methods:  a rich diversity of local- and place-based efforts, and use of IT and social networking to accelerate adaptive learning

–          Capacity building: accelerated development of Earth-observing capabilities, knowledge and understanding, and science-based services – the infrastructure on which our future depends

In addition, the AMS has targeted three cross-cutting policy issues:

–          Public-private partnerships: the reality is that these are essential to success in satellite observations, networks of surface-based sensors, and building disaster-resilient communities; yet in each case results are achieved only sporadically because of a lack of over-arching policy governing such partnerships for the public good.

–          International capacity-building: a 21st-century analog to the Marshall Plan

–          Public education: needed to provide both support and accountability for these efforts.

Through all these actions, the AMS seeks to increase the contribution of Earth observation, science, and services to the national agenda, by:

–          Expanding the use of current Earth observations, science, and services

–          Ensuring that current use of Earth observations, science, and services is more effective

–          Accelerating societal benefit from advances in Earth science and observation

–          Expanding the foundation of knowledge, understanding

Want to make a difference? Want your work to matter? Pick a piece of this agenda and start working on it.

Want some company along the way? Check out the AMS and its many formal and informal partners.

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2 Responses to America’s Real-World Challenge.

  1. Pingback: A Marshall Plan for the 21st century | Living on the Real World

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