Point of Beginning

Capitol Gains-Global climate change and the profession.

November 1, 2007


Both scientists and politicians are debating whether “global warming” or “global climate change” actually exists. Stick with me and I will explain how this relates to the surveying and mapping profession.

On one side of the debate, for example, is former Vice President Al Gore who has produced an Academy Award-winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which claims “we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.”1

On the other side is Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, who says, “my skeptical views on man-made catastrophic global warming have only strengthened as new science comes in” and believes Gore’s film is “perhaps one of the slickest science propaganda films of all time.”2

Regardless of which side of this debate one is on, all parties should be able to agree on one fundamental point: that government decisions should be based on the best data available. But what data is the government currently relying on?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the landmark case Massachusetts v. EPA.3 In a nutshell, the Court, in a 5-4 decision, said greenhouse gases are air pollutants within the meaning of the Clean Air Act. While some jumped to the conclusion that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was ordered to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the ruling actually leaves the EPA free to decide whether or not to regulate, so long as it provides adequate justification for its decision. This means that what the media has touted as the “global warming” case may not actually lead to the regulation of global warming at all under the current law.

In Massachusetts v. EPA, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the dissenting opinion, noted that Massachusetts and its co-plaintiffs claimed unregulated CO2 emissions result in atmospheric warming, causing sea levels to rise, the consequence of which is a loss of shoreline land in the Bay State. Roberts found that the plaintiffs failed to submit data or evidence that the phenomena is actually occurring, and only submitted projections and estimates.

In his dissent, Roberts wrote:

One declaration states that “a rise in sea level due to climate change is occurring on the coast of Massachusetts, in the metropolitan Boston area,” but there is no elaboration. And the declarant goes on to identify a “significan[t]” non-global-warming cause of Boston’s rising sea level: land subsidence [i.e., the sea is not rising; the land is sinking]. Thus, aside from a single conclusory statement, there is nothing in petitioners’ 43 standing declarations and accompanying exhibits to support an inference of actual loss of Massachusetts coastal land from 20th century global sea level increases. It is pure conjecture.

The Court’s attempts to identify “imminent” or “certainly impending” loss of Massachusetts coastal land fares no better. One of petitioners’ declarants predicts global warming will cause sea level to rise by 20 to 70 centimeters by the year 2100. Another uses a computer modeling program to map the Commonwealth’s coastal land and its current elevation, and calculates that the high-end estimate of sea level rise would result in the loss of significant state-owned coastal land [emphasis added]. But the computer modeling program has a conceded average error of about 30 centimeters and a maximum observed error of 70 centimeters. As an initial matter, if it is possible that the model underrepresents the elevation of coastal land to an extent equal to or in excess of the projected sea level rise, it is difficult to put much stock in the predicted loss of land. But even placing that problem to the side, accepting a century-long time horizon and a series of compounded estimates renders requirements of imminence and immediacy utterly toothless.4

What Chief Justice Roberts was saying is that computer mapping models are not the same as actual data. It can be reasonably concluded that the plaintiffs failed to submit actual data to prove Massachusetts’ coastline loss.

That is where the geospatial profession comes in.

There is a need for geospatial data to measure, monitor, verify and validate the phenomena that may be caused by global climate change. There is fundamental data the U.S. government and the American people need in order to determine if climate change is indeed having the effect some claim, and if the catastrophe former Vice President Gore predicts is forthcoming.

The United States currently lacks basic data sets that would enable scientists, as well as Congress, the White House and other policy makers to make informed decisions about environmental controls that could have serious economic and quality of life implications for the American people. Such data sets would be developed by surveyors, mapping professionals and others in the geospatial disciplines, and would include:

• a series of mid-resolution land remote sensing satellite images;

• a series of high-resolution satellite and aerial photographic images;

• a national elevation data set utilizing LiDAR technology to quantify change in vegetative canopy structure and coincident field measurements of aboveground biomass;

• a network of geodetic bench marks, coastal tide and sea level gauging and shoreline delineation maps for measurement and observation of long- and short-term change; and

• a series of historic and current land use and land cover classification data.

The Bush administration has taken the first step in creating an infrastructure to provide this data with the release of its National Land Imaging Program (NLIP) strategy administered by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This program is designed to meet U.S. civilian moderate- resolution land imaging needs to monitor the changes in land surface, polar regions and coastal zones due to the changes in population growth, development and climate. It establishes a program office in the Department of the Interior, reporting at the Secretary and Assistant Secretary level, to provide focused leadership and management for the nation’s land imaging efforts. NLIP will focus on maintaining a core, operational government commitment and capability to collect moderate-resolution land imagery through the procurement and launch of a series of U.S.-owned satellites, thereby ensuring the continuity of U.S.-collected and -managed Landsat-like data, well into future decades.

“Now the nation will have a focused program, dedicated to monitoring land changes throughout the world, which will allow humanity to more effectively assess impacts, manage resources and plan for future global needs,” said Kass Green of the Alta Vista Company (Berkeley, Calif.), the president-elect of ASPRS and a past president of MAPPS.5

“This is a significant step in global climate change monitoring by the Bush administration,” said Marvin E. Miller, PLS, PPS, CP of Aero-Metric (Maple Grove, Minn.) and current president of MAPPS.6

The program is a product of several months of intense research and analysis conducted by the Future of Land Imaging (FLI) Interagency Working Group, composed of individuals from 15 federal agencies including (among others) NASA, NOAA, USDA and the Department of Defense, with input from geospatial organizations including MAPPS and ASPRS.

In addition to establishing and maintaining a U.S. core operational moderate-resolution land imaging capability, NLIP responsibilities will include:

• acting as the lead organization for coordinating and planning future U.S. civil operational moderate resolution imaging;

• ensuring that all U.S. needs for civil moderate-resolution land imagery data are met;

• working closely with other federal agencies to assess U.S. moderate-resolution imagery needs by convening a multi-agency Federal Land Imaging Council;

• maintaining ongoing assessments of user needs and advanced technologies in remote sensing;

• negotiating international agreements to augment U.S. civil operational moderate resolution land imaging capabilities; and

• ensuring that, consistent with the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act (15 USC 5601), development of the remote sensing market and the provision of commercial value-added services based on remote sensing data should remain exclusively with the private sector.

The plan also calls for the creation of a Federal Advisory Committee on Land Imaging composed of individuals from the commercial sector, state, local government, and academic and other nonprofit organizations to guide these activities.

Implementation of the NLIP recommendations is an opportunity for the geospatial community to work with Congress and the administration on a climate change data collection strategy. With various proposals for “Imagery for the Nation,” “LiDAR for the Nation,” “Elevation for the Nation,” “Parcels for the Nation” and “Transportation for the Nation” data collection being narrower and more disparate, an integrated geospatial data infrastructure for climate change is one that will result in data that can be used for a variety of other important applications.