The Bush administration is hosting an international summit to better coordinate Earth observations. The meeting brings together delegates from more than 30 countries and 20 international organizations to decide how to link the world's air, land, and sea sensors gathering data about the planet's condition. But, environmentalists argue that the summit is part of a U.S. government plan to stall action on global warming.
The Bush administration says the purpose of the Earth Observation Summit is to generate top-level international support 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.
The head of the U.S. oceans and atmosphere agency, NOAA, Conrad Lautenbacher, says an integrated system would improve our 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 says.
The summit is linked to President Bush's recently-announced 10-year plan to study climate change. The plan would coordinate government research to reduce what it calls uncertainties in forecasts about climate warming as the result of polluting greenhouse gases. The plan would provide more than $100 million to accelerate the development of new global observation technologies.
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 Summit will support this delay. "The idea for a global observation summit is a terrific initiative to pull together all the resources of the world in terms of our observation capabilities," she says. "Unfortunately they are calling for a 10-year plan for the countries to all agree to. They have consistently said we don't 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 says.
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. 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, because many of these choices involve billions and trillions of dollars of economic dislocation and social dislocation," he says.
As for earth observation, Mr. Lautenbacher says its value goes beyond climate change to include useful information on a wide array of activities including agriculture, land use, forests, and soil moisture. The Washington summit will appoint a working group to begin coordinating environmental monitoring and report to the second Earth Observation Conference in Japan next year.