Published December 10, 2009
An organization representing the grandest ambitions of climate scientists wants Western nations to spend at least $2.1 billion a year for the next five years — and as much as $60 billion overall during that period — to glean huge troves of still undiscovered climate information from the world's land, air and seas.
The information system aims to measure literally everything environmental, from the full amount of plant leaf material in the world's ecosystems to the differences in saltiness throughout the world's oceans to the discharge from every one of the world's major rivers, to the monitoring of water vapor and cloud distribution throughout the earth's atmosphere.
This immense store of information is urgently needed to gain a true picture of the vastly complicated climatic and environmental interactions of the planet, according to a draft version of an update report on the huge project, known as the Global Observing System for Climate, which is not expected to be finalized until April 2010. And according to the report's authors, the information to be gathered is too valuable to be left to any single nation.
As the report puts it, in typically opaque technocratic prose, the wellsprings of climate information "need to be recognized as essential public goods, where the value of global availability of data exceeds any economic or strategic value of withholding national data."
The document is specifically intended to support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, although the report underlines that the observation system itself is not a formal U.N. body. Instead it's an effort by the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), an obscure joint undertaking of a variety of international organizations, which does include such bodies as the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization, both U.N. institutions.
The GCOS report was released in late October and sent as a document to the Copenhagen climate change conference. It is under review and revision until the end of January 2010. It is an update of an earlier version of the planning effort, which covered the years 2004 to 2008.
The vast environmental inventory that is contemplated in the current report is vital information that the GCOS document makes clear is still missing from the picture of, among other things, the true extent of greenhouse gas and carbon concentrations on planet Earth — despite the emphatic assertion of world leaders that "settled" climate science requires enormous economic dislocations and a restructuring of the entire global economy to save the world from "climate change."
The incompleteness and uncertainty of knowledge about the critical indicators of "climate change" underlined by the draft report stand in stark contrast to the economic and political prescriptions demanded by many of the world's leaders to save the planet from what is still largely an environmental unknown.
Time and again the draft report makes clear that "high quality" and comprehensive information is still required to fill in huge blanks in scientific knowledge on everything from the importance of clouds and water vapor to global warming, to the actual volume of man-made vs. natural greenhouse gas concentrations in the world's oceans, to the true extent of ice-melting and ice-formation at the globe's poles, with many more unknowns still to be determined.
In dry and dense language, the report underlines the reality that the current system of acquiring and mathematically digesting that information is seriously incomplete, even haphazard at times, and definitely not up to the enormous scientific task of understanding the planet's interlocking climate and environment.
As the report puts it in an executive summary: "With the exception of the main meteorological networks and the planning for specific projects, most climate-observing activities are rarely coordinated, planned and integrated at the national level."
The same complaints about the current inadequacy of information are larded throughout the body of the 137-page main report.
"Ocean observing networks, their associated infrastructure and analysis systems are not adequate to meet the specific needs of the UNFCCC for most climate variables and in most regions of the planet," it states.
"More accurate knowledge of the emission sources [for precursors for ozone] is urgently needed" it says elsewhere, "as input to climate and air quality models, which are used both for climate monitoring ... and for climate prediction."
"Knowledge of the global variability and change of ocean sub-surface temperature is essential for climate forecasting and for evaluation of climate change model performance," the report observes in a section on a huge number of oceanic unknowns. It adds, "The fundamental issue for the sub-surface temperature observing program is that none of the existing observing networks have commitments to achieve and sustain the agreed global coverage and sampling density."
Since there is no single source that can provide all the unknowns, the main aim of the GCOS project is to begin filling in some of those holes through deployment of a boggling array of on-site testing around and above the globe, using instruments "on the ground and on ships, buoys, floats, ocean profilers, balloons, samplers, and aircraft, as well as from all forms of remote sensing including satellites."
Vertical "cores" of sea-water will be mined to determine temperature at different levels. Arrays of buoys will be set adrift around the world to measure atmospheric pressure. The world's peat bogs will be sampled and inventoried. New instruments will measure the differing pressures of carbon dioxide in planetary seas and at their surfaces. Soil moisture around the world will be monitored, and sensors will be strung around the mouths of the world's largest rivers to monitor some 70 percent of the globe's freshwater discharges. The sun's radiation, as well as the reflective radiation of Earth, will be carefully recorded.
All of this, the report underlines, can only be done so far as current means allow. "Our ability to measure some key and emerging ECVs [Essential Climate Variables] ... is limited by the lack of suitable instruments and techniques."
Even with those limitations, the report says that 137 specific types of measuring, monitoring and analytical actions will be undertaken, "mostly over the next five years ... Many of the propose actions are already underway, at the least as part of research activities."
In effect, the Global Observing System is a "network of networks," building on the existing climate observation efforts of nations around the world, and especially those in the West that have advanced satellite measuring capabilities and data processing centers.
One of the data processing centers in the system is the University of East Anglia, where leaked e-mails and computer programs have cast doubt on the frequent claims of a rapid and unprecedented rise in global temperature during the human industrial era. Indeed, a review of long-term historical data on temperatures mentioned in the report is a product of many of the scientists embroiled in the East Anglia controversy.
The GCOS report says that the information system it aims to create is highly flexible, and will build in new science and technology as it becomes available.
But at a high price. The "rough" $2.1 billion annual cost estimate in the report comes in addition to an estimated $4 billion to $7 billion that the authors estimate nations already spend on climate observation — not always to good effect.
In addition, the report indicates that national climate gathering institutions — largely in the developing world — could need anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion per year in additional spending to bring their domestic climate observation systems up to speed.
That could bring the high estimate of the additional cost of the five year effort to more than $60 billion. The report emphasizes that all cost estimates are "provisional."
The cost analysis section of the report — which appears in the executive summary, but not in the main report itself — is discreetly silent about who will hand over all the money, especially the part to be spent in the developing world, but by implication, the money is intended to come from developed countries.
The vast surveillance network will also have other uses than purely scientific ones. Its ability to measure changes in land use and their effects will tie into elements of a global climate deal that envisage trading cash for efforts to prevent deforestation in poorer countries — which, in turn, may tie into a lucrative international system of trading "carbon offsets" in a cap-and-trade system. It will also aid in assessing disaster relief efforts in the case of flooding or tidal waves, and in measuring bio-diversity.
But most of all, the titanic effort, the report states, is "essential to support further research, to initialize predictions on timescales out to decades ahead, and for the development of the models used to make these predictions and longer-term scenario-based projections."
The observations it gathers will be "used to assess social and economic vulnerabilities and to develop the actions needed across a broad range of sectors to adapt to climate variability and unavoidable change."
In other words, to encompass the future of the entire planet.
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.