On Satellite Observations and Climate Change

An open letter to the Planetary “Sponsored Global Warming” Society

Dear Directors of the Planetary Society, dear Editors of the society magazine “The Planetary Report”

Your decision to dedicate a whole issue of the Planetary Report magazine to Planet Earth is commendable.

Too often one forgets that for the study of the universe there is a celestial body available to study 24/7, without the need for expensive trips to outer space. And that “body” is our own planet, the “cradle of humanity”.

All “missions to planet Earth” in the forms of orbital satellites and probes are worthwhile almost de facto, as new data can help us better understand our “motherworld”, and together with the accompanying experience may allow us to build the satellites and probes needed to explore the rest of the Solar System, and beyond.

But the July/August issue of the Planetary Report is not a celebration of past “missions to planet Earth” nor a comprehensive description of all the challenges lying ahead, and of all the questions still unanswered about our planet.

It’s just a collection of articles about global warming.

Is that what I and surely many other members await two long months for, every time? (and yes, I do follow Emily Lakdawalla’s blog).

Let’s assume “global warming” is indeed a big planetary issue, if not an emergency. Is it not talked about already in countless newspaper articles, movies, Nobel Prize wins, parliamentary sessions the world over, and now even a major topic of discussion at the G-8 “major industrialized nations” meeting?

And what purpose could it ever serve for a space-advocacy group to throw in its lot, especially since the issue has become so heavily politicized? Then one reads behind the magazine’s cover, and the “partial sponsorship” by Northrop Grumman Corporation starts explaining things.

After all, They are definitely not the first ones to jump on the “global warming bandwagon”, as demonstrated by a recent article on the International Herald Tribune. In the Planetary Report, they are the Company using the picture of a polar bear to advertise on the back cover that their “satellites above are safeguarding life below”.

Too bad though, Northrop Grumman Corporation wouldn’t survive a week by sticking to the environmental satellites market, and has to build some other pieces of hardware far less safeguarding for the lives experiencing a close encounter with their weapons.

But the problem is not with Northrop Grumman. The issue is what is the Planetary Society doing by jumping head first in the “global warming” debate, and also how it is doing it: because oversimplifications and mistakes abound. And that is definitely a no-no for something like the Planetary Society, that bases all its work of course on Science and on precision.

Here a quick list of observations:

(1) Contrary to what the Editor Charlene M. Anderson writes in the opening column, the Earth’s climate is not being recorded as undergoing a “steady warming”. There has been no warming in the past 10 years. Previous decades have seen warming and cooling episodes. If we are undergoing a warming, it’s definitely “not steady”

(2) In “Earth is, after all, a planet”, Charles F Kennel talks about “moving from knowledge to action”, because “human actions change our planet in ways that are not beneficial”. Note that certitude in those words. Does Mr Kennel realize that those words could be used to demonstrate there is no real need for more satellites to observe our planet? On the other hand: if the “global perspective” can “be found only in space” and therefore more satellites are needed indeed, what is the certitude on global warming based upon?

(3) Editor Charlene M. Anderson is then back in action with a “Venus and Mars, Earth’ s sister worlds” box making improbable connections between Venus’s clouds of sulphuric acid and acid rains on Earth (the two phenomena have little in common apart from elementary chemistry) and between Mars’s tenuous atmosphere and the Antarctic “ozone hole” (UV levels for the former are way higher than for the latter).

(4) In the same piece, we are told that Mars and Venus have shown us how “fragile, precious and unique” Earth is: I am not sure how anybody familiar with the evidence of periodical “asteroidal bombardments” on the surface of the vast majority of solar system bodies could define Earth as “fragile”, given that it has deleted almost all traces of four billion years of impact.

(5) Finally some fresh air in Michael D King’s “The Earth’s changing environment as seen from space” that actually is a list of all that can be done with satellites to monitor our planet. King’s piece is a good reminder of what it means to stick to the facts, instead of trying to “knit” one’s preferred interpretation around them. On the same tone, Editor Charlene M. Anderson’s box “Here, there and not quite everywhere” about analogies (rather than forecasts of doom) between what is seen on Earth and what happens on other planets and on natural satellites.

(6) Things turn to the worse with 6 pages given to Richard J Sommerville to explain the results of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We are told that it is “90% certain” that us humans have caused “Earth’s atmosphere to warm up in recent decades” by emitting “greenhouse gases” in all our activities: too bad there is no space to explain where is this 90% figure coming from, for example why not 85.6% or 92.4%. We are just told it means “very likely” (why not stick to those words then).

(7) Furthermore, in the section “Recognizing climate change” Sommerville does nothing of the sort, and instead further dwells in the IPCC statements, before listing a rather selective group of observations (he forgets to mention the expansion of Antarctic ice, for example). And then after stating that “the IPCC does not specifically forecast what the climate will do”, Sommerville nevertheless writes that “sea level will rise perhaps by 18 to 59 centimeters”, with uncertainties due to scientists being unable to “assess the potential for further sea level rise”. Perish the thought of being unable to assess the potential for lower-than-expected sea level rise…

(8 ) In section “Absolute certain truth” we are told that the IPCC is “simply an honest and competent assessment of published peer-review science”. Hopefully so. But then on what basis did the IPCC get the Nobel Peace Prize? Not to mention the fact, reported by Sommerville, that the IPCC Working Group reports are approved line-by-line by governmental representatives.

The IPCC must have performed the miracle of uniting “honest”, “competent” and “government” under the same roof for the first time in history.

(9) The pictures accompanying Sommerville’s articles seem chosen for old-style PR purposes. There is a refinery emitting gases (those are not greenhouse gases); impressive satellite pictures before and after cyclone Nargis (that had nothing to do with climate change); and another satellite picture of the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica seemingly breaking up into icebergs (there is little indication that the southernmost continent is warming at all, apart from its Peninsula).

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Ironically, there are other ways to advocate for more “missions to planet Earth”, rather than parroting the most trite global warming slogans.

For example, there is no mention in the Planetary Report issue of the first chapter of the IPCC’s Working Group Two report, where it is clearly shown that the overwhelming majority of data confirming the climate is changing come from Europe alone.

We are talking 96% of evidence coming from 7% of the planet’s land area.

A major Earth observation plan is definitely in order: for the most basics of reasons, in order to observe and understand what is truly happening. If the first step instead is to declare our knowledge more or less settled, a couple of satellites will suffice.

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(10) As Berrien Moore III writes in the final article “As riders on the Earth together”, “to act wisely we require information and understanding”. Whoever is worried about global warming, they better concentrate on getting more environmental satellites up there, instead of declaring as a matter of principle that “we simply must take some of the pressure off Earth” as Mr Moore unfortunately states at the end of his article.

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Tellingly, we Members of the Society are not provided anything else from this issue of the Planetary Report. No Society news, no items on sale, no information about upcoming events, nothing about existing projects. Perhaps those folks at Northrop Grumman didn’t want to pay for the additional couple of pages. Or perhaps if climate change is afoot, all other activities of the Society will not be of interest any longer.

regards

maurizio morabito – london (uk)