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What is NASA’s role in addressing climate change?

Recently, I had the privilege of testifying in the U.S. House of Representatives at a hearing on climate change held by the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. As I sat listening to the statements of the Committee Members and the other witnesses, and the exchange that followed, I could not help but think back to the first time I testified, more than 20 years ago, and I felt simultaneously encouraged and dismayed. Encouraged because the conversation was far more grounded in the scientific consensus than it had been two decades earlier, and the committee members understood and accepted the realities of climate change. Yet, dismayed because I was keenly aware of how much time we have lost — time during which solutions could have been aggressively pursued, which would have made the climate change crisis far more manageable and much less urgent than it is today.

Over those intervening years, the conditions and phenomena that science had clearly anticipated have happened. Among these are:

  • Increases in the number and intensity of severe weather events
  • Greater flooding
  • More severe droughts
  • More wildfires burning larger areas
  • Disappearing glaciers and shrinking ice sheets
  • Rising seas at an accelerating rate and
  • Rapidly shrinking Arctic sea ice

These changes, all of which come at tremendous economic and social costs, are no longer “just” predictions; they are part of the world we live in. And these changes that science had foreseen have brought — and will continue to bring — challenges to virtually every aspect of our lives.

The Biden administration has recognized the importance of tackling the climate change challenge head-on and has laid out an ambitious agenda that makes understanding and addressing climate change a major priority. These objectives depend critically on a robust Earth airborne and satellite observing system and the tools to translate the data into actionable knowledge. 

From the vantage point of space, satellites allow us to watch the Earth system evolve over periods from days to decades, and spatial scales ranging from neighborhoods to the entire planet. Since the 1970s, NASA has maintained a fleet of satellites examining key aspects of the atmosphere, land, oceans and ice all across the globe, providing a comprehensive and in-depth look at large-scale environmental phenomena and also at the interactions among different components of the Earth system. Observations from satellites and aircraft have not only provided evidence as climate change has unfolded but have made its effects clear and visible to people everywhere. 

NASA and its partners in government, academia, industry and elsewhere also provide the tools and talent to analyze the satellite records and identify the processes at work and the associated implications. One striking example is the satellite observations of the disappearance of Arctic sea ice cover at a rate far greater than had been predicted, which allowed us to gain new understanding of the basic physics and improve our predictive models. Other examples are the tracking and examining of wildfires, drought, storms, flooding, sea-level rise and many other climate-driven parameters, as well as the underlying conditions that drive their behavior and the implications of the changes that are occurring. As a result, we are better prepared to anticipate and plan for changes in these high-impact events that can destroy lives.

We are in an environment today in which changes in the Earth’s climate — which are inextricably linked to changes in the Earth’s biological, physical and chemical systems — will have profound impacts on our health, livelihoods, well-being and prosperity. Our success as a society in the face of those changes depends on: the magnitude of those changes, the rate at which they occur, our ability to anticipate them and how well we prepare for them.

Clearly, the magnitude and rate of change depend on sound policy and society’s collective actions, which must be informed by an in-depth understanding of the phenomena and processes at work. This understanding is what NASA and its partners make possible and provide.

Our ability to anticipate changes and their impacts depends squarely on detailed process knowledge and effective predictive capabilities, none of which would exist without the comprehensive global satellite data sets and the expertise to turn those data into predictions.

And our ability to prepare for change depends critically on understanding the physical consequences of our actions, as well as inaction. That understanding is fundamentally informed by satellite observations and analyses.   

We already have a path forward in an assessment commonly referred to as the Decadal Survey, a two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences based on the successes of previous Earth-observing missions and responding to the needs identified by the Earth Science community. The report, “Thriving on Our Changing Planet, a Decadal Strategy for Earth Observations from Space,” lays out how NASA investments can most effectively meet scientific and societal needs. This study provides a blueprint for advancing our understanding of the changing Earth; enabling us to not just manage the challenges but thrive in the face of them. 

The Biden administration’s recognition of NASA’s role in addressing the climate change challenge and its willingness to invest can allow the full potential of Earth observations from space to be realized. NASA is already tackling the Decadal Survey recommendations, developing missions that seek to understand: the behavior and roles of clouds and aerosols in the global energy balance, air quality and precipitation. They’re also looking at the movement of water and mass throughout the Earth, a key expression and impact of climate change, particularly in the context of drought, floods, and sea-level rise; and the ways in which ecological and geological processes contribute and respond to climate change. NASA’s efforts will be accelerated by investments proposed by the administration. And there are many other space-based observational capabilities to advance our understanding in these areas that NASA has the capacity to develop. They are only limited by budgets.

NASA plays a fundamental and indispensable role in equipping our nation, and indeed the world, to meet the challenges associated with climate change. When people think about NASA, their eyes tend to gaze upward and outward, but this is a reminder that NASA’s “eyes” also peer downward and inward, observing the Earth in ways that are invaluable for successfully meeting the climate challenge.

Waleed Abdalati is the director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. He also served as NASA chief scientist in 2011 and 2012 and on the Biden transition team.

Tags Climate change Global warming NASA sea-level rise Waleed Abdalati wildfires

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