“We’re really, really in trouble,” he continued. “It’s just a question of time. People say climate has changed before and people adapted. That is true. But there weren’t six billion of us, with all the arable land working as hard as it could, and every one of those areas counting on climate more or less staying the same. All our infrastructure is built around this climate. Personally, I think we have a strong moral obligation to respond in a fashion that gives people a century from now a reasonable chance of making their way ahead. We should do something.”
The ability to “do something,” however, depends on getting information that is much better and more detailed. And that will depend on increasingly precise computer models and more monitoring equipment to feed data into those models. Not every city has a Goddard Institute for Space Studies in its backyard, Cynthia Rosenzweig points out. She says every local government should be given the tools to understand how global warming will affect its community. “We need a national capacity for scenarios, to provide every locality in the nation with the input variables they need for projecting impacts and preparing adaptations,” she says. “We should begin to incorporate sea-level rise into plans for coastal development. We should improve our responses to heat waves–now–so we can be prepared for greater frequency and duration. And we should consider the potential for more droughts–how we would manage for more droughts and floods.”
But from NASA to the NOAA to the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, the budget picture is dismal. In 2005 dollars, the annual federal budget for climate-change research has been slashed from more than $2 billion in the mid-1990s to less than $1.6 billion today. Earlier this year, a National Academy of Sciences report warned that Earth-observing satellites–basic hardware for monitoring climate change–were at “great risk” of blinking out. Without urgent investment, the report warned, 40 percent of sensors and other instruments aboard NASA spacecraft could stop functioning before the end of the decade. “At these agencies, earth-science and climate-science budgets are either level or decreasing in real dollars,” says MIT’s Ronald Prinn. “Under those circumstances, what is needed for helping out states and cities is just not going to appear. It is a sad state of affairs. At a time when we should be trying to help at the regional to the local level, with sound advice, we are facing this incapability to have accurate forecasts at the local level that make the advice worth taking.”
David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.