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Tokyo Summit Aims to Establish Plan for Comprehensive Global Environmental Monitoring System - 2004-04-22

Ministers from 47 countries are to meet Sunday, April 25, in Tokyo to advance plans for coordinating scientific observations of the Earth. The summit is the second on how to link the world's air, land, and sea sensors gathering data about the planet's condition. But environmentalists argue that the meeting is part of a U.S. government plan to stall action on global warming.

The Bush administration says the purpose of the Tokyo Observation Summit is to present a 10-year program for establishing a comprehensive global environmental monitoring system. Right now, the system is a loose set of ocean buoys, space satellites, balloons, and other instruments on land, sea, and in the air operated by individual nations for their own purposes.

The program being presented in Tokyo concerns ways to link them and share the data. It is the result of eight months of study by working groups appointed last July at the first summit in Washington.

The head of the U.S. oceans and atmosphere agency NOAA, Conrad Lautenbacher says an integrated system would improve understanding of issues like climate change and generate forecasts policy makers will need to deal with them.

"We need to band together to build this system to provide the baseline for prudent environmental decisions for the world leaders - to start figuring out how to coordinate the assets that we have today, how to determine the fair sharing of data that is necessary for all nations, and how to fill in the gaps," he said.

The summit is linked to President Bush's 10-year plan to study climate change, announced last year. The plan would coordinate all U.S. government research to reduce what it calls uncertainties in forecasts about climate warming as the result of polluting greenhouse gases.

But environmental groups criticize the program as an effort to delay action on global warming by restudying questions they say are already answered. At a Washington organization called the National Environmental Trust, legislative lobbyist Debbie Reed says the Earth observation project will support this delay.

"The idea is a terrific initiative to pull together all the resources of the world in terms of our observation capabilities," she explained. "Unfortunately they are calling for a 10-year plan for the countries to all agree to. They have consistently said we do not have the type of data we need now. Yet virtually every other country has agreed we do have the data that human actions are causing greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere and it is causing global warming."

Soon after taking office in 2001, President Bush reversed the U.S. commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, which outlines an international plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions widely thought to cause global warming. Mr. Bush said the plan was unfair because it exempted developing countries and would be costly to the U.S. economy.

Ms. Reed accuses the president of ignoring climate realities.

"The World Meteorological Organization on July 2 issued an unprecedented alert saying that severe weather events are happening across the world in unprecedented numbers and will continue to happen into the future," she said.

But administration official Conrad Lautenbacher calls charges that President Bush is stalling on climate change unfair.

"Nobody is arguing in this country that we don't need to stabilize greenhouse gases," he noted. " I think the argument is, how fast do you do it and what means do you use to accomplish that end? You have to know quite a bit about what's going on in the science side before you can make an intelligent choice as to what to do on the policy side."

A few days before the Tokyo Earth Observation Summit, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, a bipartisan group of experts established by Congress, issued a report describing severe degradation of American coastal waters and shoreline. Its chairman, former U.S. Energy Secretary James Watkins, urged creation of the global observation network as part of a broader effort to preserve the nation's marine resources.

"We know what has to be done in the long range to review this report and look towards the amalgamation of ocean, land, and atmospheric measurements so that we can begin to feed to the decision makers some right products that they can use for decision making purposes," he said.

The Tokyo summit is expected to adopt an Earth Observation plan.