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Archive for Thursday, April 22, 2004

Environment a global issue

April 22, 2004

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— On the theory that you too may be ready for some good news, let me turn from Iraq, the war on terrorism and presidential politics and call your attention to a meeting this weekend in Tokyo where the United States government is leading a broad international effort to accomplish something that promises benefits for all nations and people.

That may sound like pie-in-the-sky, but after talking with the two people heading the American delegation, I'm persuaded it could be true.

Mike Leavitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, the undersecretary of commerce and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have gone across the Pacific to sign an agreement carrying forward plans for an Earth Observation System. With 46 other nations, ranging from Algeria to Uzbekistan, and 26 international scientific organizations, it represents a remarkable coalition of often squabbling partners. Even France is aboard for this one.

The goal, as Lautenbacher explained in a joint interview with Leavitt, is no less than "bringing together all the systems we have into one global network" that will monitor changes in the oceans, the atmosphere and everything in between.

The potential benefits include improving weather forecasts, reducing damage from oil spills and coastal storms, boosting safety and the economy of shipping and airlines, and increasing productivity of fisheries on which vast populations depend for food.

Almost all the industrial countries and some of the nations with emerging economies have their own systems for checking out the skies, the land and the water.

But, as Leavitt pointed out, "most environmental issues transcend political boundaries. This is an initiative where the United States is using its considerable convening power to overcome those boundaries, both inside our own government and between our country and others."

Leavitt, who began his job only last year after serving as governor of Utah, credits Lautenbacher as a persuasive advocate of this initiative, first within the Bush administration and then on the international scene.

The effort was blessed by the major powers at a G-8 summit, and the first outlines of the plan came together last summer. The Tokyo meeting is designed to approve a framework agreement for a 10-year plan to create the Earth Observation System, with hopes that the final plan can be ratified next February.

This may sound abstract and bureaucratic, but the American officials make a persuasive case that it holds enormous potential benefits for both advanced and developing nations.

Just Tuesday, a congressionally chartered U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy reported that "major changes are urgently needed" in state, federal and international policy to protect hundreds of billions of dollars worth of economic activity -- shipping, fishing, oil and gas and recreational spending -- tied directly to the oceans, to say nothing of safeguarding the pleasure people derive from their time on shore or at sea.

Lautenbacher's agency has reported that about one-third of the nation's economy is at risk to unexpected changes in climate and weather. It said that consumers could save $1 billion a year in energy costs if the average weather forecast could be improved by just 1 degree Fahrenheit.

The admiral said that one project coming out of the Tokyo meeting will be a design to fill in "large gaps" in ocean observations. "We also need biological sensors around the world and better observations of the upper atmosphere as well."

Leavitt added, "Not all the gaps are in technology. We also have to overcome gaps in politics and sociology. The machines can talk to each other; the challenge is to get people (of different nationalities) to communicate."

I asked why, in a world torn by so many rivalries and disputes, it had been possible for this vast scientific project to go forward. "It's win-win for every country," Lautenbacher said. "Improved data is enormously important to developing countries. Without it, all the aid they're getting for economic development is useless. But countries like ours can also reap billions in benefits."

"And learning to share information can itself be of value to us," Leavitt added. "Inside our own country, maintaining sovereign interests while meeting global needs is a challenge. Local water districts have to learn to work with my agency and even the Homeland Security Department in a more cooperative way. The geographic and political boundaries are crumbling."

We saw that in a frightening way on 9-11. This exercise could give us a more benign and hopeful example.




David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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