Earth observations, science, and services for the 21st century

Given federal deficits and budget constraints, what Earth observations, science, and services for the 21st century might most Americans support, regardless of political persuasion?

Whew! It’s the year 2011…so there are no guarantees.

But start with the public good.

Or, maybe more properly, social good, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Economists define public goods as non-rival and non-excludable. If one person buys an IPhone, that unit isn’t available for other would-be buyers. It’s a rival good. Want to see a popular movie on opening night? Once the theater seats are sold out, you’ll be excluded from that show.

For the longest time, weather forecasts were broadcast, and therefore essentially a public good. Viewers or those with radios could take advantage of them without limitation. Always room for one more. They weren’t encoded or scrambled in any way, so no one was excluded either. Today’s Internet provides another media for the distribution of weather information, and some of this distribution is exclusive – available only to paid subscribers.

Which brings us to social goods. Such goods could be delivered as private goods, but because of prevailing public policy are considered government responsibility, funded through taxes, and delivered free. Public-safety warnings in the face of weather hazards such as tornadoes and hurricanes are normally treated in this way. Remember the Declaration of Independence, and its discussion of inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Dress that up a bit. Think “the right to lifein the face of weather hazards.” [Warnings for volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. fall into this category as well; and the capabilities continue to grow.]

So the closest the nation comes to a non-partisan reason for Earth observations, science, and services is this one. And after the events of this past year? The floods? The horrific tornado season? Hurricane Irene? Last weekend’s snowstorm? Virginia’s earthquake? The Japanese tsunami? Most of us need little convincing. Little wonder, then, that President Obama, in his press conference late last June, trying to rally the entire country, not just his Democratic base, chose the National Weather Service as his poster child.

Let’s take another step. Given today’s technology, the public safety argument extends to aviation weather. Without weather forecasts, commercial planes don’t fly. But here it seems that the weather forecasts and warnings become more of what economists call a mixed good, don’t they? These predictions support routine, day-to-day flight operations of private airlines. So in some respect, aviation weather might be treated as a private good. Maybe then the airlines should foot some of the bill. [Some indeed have in-house or private weather services under contract.] But they also protect the flying public. That’s only those who can afford to fly, but still a rather large public group. And what about all of us who live on the flight path to and from a major airport?

With this example, we segue into weather predictions to support other sectors. Surface transportation. Agriculture. Energy. In all these sectors, weather predictions provide both private and public benefit. Who should pay, and who should get a free ride? Why? This is the business space where the private sector and the National Weather Service conduct much of their discussion. In these sectors, most businesses use a blend of public forecasts, available to everyone, and private augmentation of those forecasts, for which they pay.

How about water resource management? Flood warnings, and hazard mitigation are supported on the public’s nickel – some at state as well as federal levels (it’s complicated). But flood warnings, and drought monitoring, and its close cousin, fire weather (think all this summer’s wildfire in Texas), take us into longer time horizons, weeks and maybe months.

And once we get into months, it’s but a short step to years – and climate variability and change. And clearly, once we get into this arena, the political reality is we’re knee deep in partisanship.

So let’s explore a different direction and see where it takes us.    

Economists also tell us that the national defense is a public good. Our armed forces, protecting 300 million of us, can always protect one more. And it’s hard to exclude any particular man, woman, or child among us living in the United States from that shield. [“On the other hand,” and economists are famous for this, it’s possible to find or manufacture hypothetical problems here. Imagine policies that might protect the continental United States and leave Alaskans or Hawaiians relatively exposed. But you get the idea.]

And our military needs weather support.

Boy does it ever. Call to mind all those flights and sorties conducted by the Air Force each day. And they’re worldwide, originating at military bases throughout the globe. Naval fleets are in every sea, including the polar waters. And land operations in the Middle East and elsewhere depend on  trafficability. Is the ground too muddy for tanks and armored vehicles to transit? What about dust storms? And just as we want Humvees to be armored, we want whatever level of weather service is needed to support our men and women in harm’s way.

The longer time scales enter here as well. Naval leaders take climate change as seriously as anyone. Why? Because their facilities are located at sea level – and are therefore impacted by the sea level rise accompanying global warming. Because ice-free Arctic waters mean shipping, and resource extraction – and contention. It’s a new arena they must protect. They’re not having a political debate. They’re planning and taking action. On the longer time scales, climate variability and change translate into spot shortages of food and water worldwide that create refugee populations, and geopolitical instability. These raise humanitarian concerns for the United States and change global risks and threats as well.

All this and more constitute the foundation for U.S. support for Earth observations, science and services in the 21st century.

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4 Responses to Earth observations, science, and services for the 21st century

  1. anonymous says:

    Please note that the National Weather Service (NWS) bills itself as *weather ready,* which is not to be confused with climate ready. So much for exploring new horizons….

    • William Hooke says:

      A little harsh, maybe! …but the idea expressed here makes some sense. In today’s society, with its critical infrastructure and long-range concerns, both domestically and worldwide, surely it’s important to be ready for both short-term weather fluctuations and longer-term climate variability.

  2. Alfred Hochstaedter says:

    Does anybody reading this have concrete examples of the Navy taking climate change seriously. This would be a great teaching example.


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