The United States does not receive appropriate recognition from the global media on the substantial contribution we make to environmental improvement. Whether measured by total dollars or spending per capita, the United States spends more on environmental protection than any other nation in the world. We, as a nation, have collectively decided to make this expenditure to improve our way of life, now and for future generations.
These expenditures are an “environmental overhead” cost built into the price of goods and services produced in the United States . Since our expenditures are more than other countries, our prices must be relatively higher, making the United States less competitive in the global marketplace. If other countries began to approach our expenditures, the price differential due to environmental costs would decrease and should over the long run make U.S. goods and services more competitive.
One way to encourage other nations to incur a similar environmental overhead is to foster transparency in environmental assessment. If a farmer in Brazil can see the extent of Amazon deforestation, he or she might , in some small way, encourage changes in laws and enforcement to improve environmental conditions for their children and grandchildren.
If a factory worker in Shanghai can objectively compare his air quality/smog to Los Angeles, he might , in some small way, demand that his children have cleaner air. Russia has some of the most stringent environmental regulations and the most lax enforcement. Only when the average citizen demands costly action are countries more likely to make the costly steps for environmental improvement.
How to communicate environmental conditions in a believable manner is difficult. Scientific reports, while critically important, have had only modest impact in emerging and developing countries. Pictures of changing environmental impacts are much more effective. With the vast increase in Internet access in developing countries and visualization tools like Google Earth, Virtual Earth and the National Geographic Map Machine, it is possible to show many natural resource global changes with pictures.
Simply showing the deforestation in a neighborhood over the past decades and month after month into the future would have to improve local environmental awareness and a willingness to incur environmental costs. Having a reliable and accessible means for the average person anywhere on Earth to view environmental stresses in his/her backyard and compare them to others will be a powerful tool for change.
After being the world leader in global monitoring with programs such the NASA Earth Observing System with 17 sensors in space remotely measuring global change, the United States currently has only one mission in the planning stages. In the past five years, countries such as Brazil, China, Japan, Germany, France, the U.K. and even Nigeria have developed and launched land remote sensing satellites, mostly without U.S. technology. Much of the data from these satellites is not easily accessible nor affordable.
The U.S. aerospace manufacturing infrastructure supporting civilian remote sensing satellite construction has dissipated over the last 10 years. The U.S. remote sensing aerospace industry has become increasingly uncompetitive. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations make it difficult for U.S. companies to cooperate with foreign aerospace companies. These foreign companies have been forced to develop new technologies with non-U.S. suppliers, further exacerbating the competitive position of U.S. space companies.
The United States should take leadership in the global change environmental initiative by providing global monitoring to everyone, every nation and every school child in the world. This can be accomplished with rather modest investments in Earth observation technologies designed to provide transparent evidence of environmental conditions in each locality. The current international discussions concerning the Global Earth Observation System of Systems appears directed toward this goal but not much is happening.
Over time with easy access to visual evidence, other countries will begin to clean up their environment and improve their quality of life. They will begin to incur increased environmental costs, which will reduce the “environmental overhead gap” and improve U.S. industry’s global competitiveness across the board and contribute to leveling the global economic playing field. Investing in earth observation will also revitalize the civil U.S. space industry.
By providing unbiased locally relevant visual environmental information to average people around the world through exciting media such as Google Earth and NASA World Wind, it is possible the United States will finally be recognized for the tremendous expenditures we make to improve the quality of life on this planet.
Roger Mitchell is vice president of program development at MDA Federal Inc. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone and are not characteristic of MDA.