Understanding earth science in the 21st century
In his address to the National Academy of Science in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said that science is the “source of understanding man’s own nature.” Almost 50 years later, that remains the lens through which we view the benefits of science and scientific research.
In recent weeks, as discussions on balanced budgets and reduced deficits abound, some of the results are a staggering blow to scientific research and 21st Century competitiveness. In the context of earth science, the approach is flawed. On the one hand, deficit discussions ignore largely the cost-effective, multi-faceted, and often life saving benefits the study of earth science has brought to our country and the world over the last 50 years. Second, except among the uninformed, the debate over the human causes of climate change is one without scientific merit.
There is little debate among the world’s leading climate scientists about conclusions drawn from extensive, peer-reviewed scientific research. Nonetheless, we face significant cuts in research because some challenge the science and have raced to the outer edges to differ over the conclusions.
Among the earth science technologies developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), two that stand out are the Autonomous Modular Scanner (AMS), developed to assist in tracking and managing wildfires that often occur on our West Coast and the space-based Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument that provides similar global observations worldwide. These NASA instruments relay infrared images to managers quickly by satellite, ensuring that firefighters and safety officials have the information needed to combat wildfires and keep innocent Americans out of harms way. NASA uses similar technology to detect and track hurricanes and tornadoes, providing instantaneous information that is often life saving. Recently, NASA’s constellation of satellites was deployed to parts of Central America and Pakistan to help understand the causes of terrible flooding and ensure preparedness against future natural disasters. NASA technology also provides local television stations with satellite imaging of the day’s forecast and predictions for the week’s weather. Whether it’s the path of a hurricane, the cloud from the Iceland volcano, or simply tomorrow’s weather, we rely on NASA technology – earth science – and cutting it would endanger the safety of our communities.
The debate over climate change has played a prominent role in public and political spheres since the late 1980s when droughts and the work of the National Research Council drew attention to abnormally hot weather occurring all over the world. Since then, countless studies have been conducted to discern the cause and effects of climate change. These studies have received intense discussion in scientific, political, and neighborhood communities.
Unfortunately, the debate has reached a new, fevered pitch in the current Congress before the Science, Space and Technology Committee, on which I serve. The argument put forth by many of my Republican colleagues goes something like this: there is no human element in climate change, scientific research is promoting wrongfully this interpretation, and the research misleads the American people. These conclusions have been roundly disputed by the recognized experts in climate science around the world.
Climate change is simply the long-term average of weather and not a term that lends itself to ongoing political posturing. In terms of scientific evidence, the change in the world’s climate over the past 40 years is indisputable. Global temperatures and sea levels are rising, global snowpack is decreasing, Arctic sea ice and land ice are decreasing – these are consistent trends over the past 40 years when considered together indicate clearly a warming climate. Europe is not delaying; China is not delaying. The rest of the world is looking at the same science and proceeding with deliberate speed on economic and energy policies that reflect the urgency of climate change. For lawmakers to continue down this track of disputing recognized scientific research only delays the time to deal effectively with the clear impacts.
As economies become more interwoven, so will our reliance on earth science and global technologies to ensure emergency preparedness, respond to natural disasters, and prepare our economy for the 21st Century. We have an obligation to balance our budget for future generations, but that obligation must be met responsibly. Defunding necessary technology and undercutting scientific research leaves us far short of “understanding our own nature.” That is too high a price.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) serves on the Science, Space and Technology Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives