Secure World Foundation Forum

The Next 10-15 Years

, is editor of Imaging Notes and Senior Advisor of the Secure World Foundation, an organization devoted to the promotion of cooperative approaches to space security.

This past December, the National Intelligence Council, an element of the Department of National Intelligence (DNI), issued Global Trends 2030, a voluminous report assessing the state of the world and trends from a geopolitical perspective. The DNI oversees and coordinates the work of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and other entities charged with collecting and interpreting information that might affect U.S. national security.

Global Trends 2030 is well worth reading, not only to bring us up to speed regarding the interplay of the various geopolitical influences that affect the United States and the rest of the world, but also to explore the possible futures that we all might encounter. Although the report does not mention the use of Earth observations (EO), remote sensing or other geospatial technologies, many of the concerns it raises can be addressed in part through the use of data provided by space systems.

The report is notable for its methodology. Before starting on Global Trends 2030, the authors commissioned a review of its four earlier global trends studies to “highlight any persistent blind spots and biases as well as distinctive strengths,” which they then used in designing this study. After completing the first draft, they actively sought feedback and criticism of it from non U.S. interlocutors around the globe, researchers and analysts who provided a broader perspective on worldwide trends than could have been possible without it. The report’s authors also created a public blog, accessible worldwide, that invited additional feedback and inputs on the report’s major themes. Many of the concerns of experts in other countries about the initial draft are reproduced in a section devoted to the responses received.

The report has three major sections:

  1. Megatrends – four broad trends they considered as especially important today;
  2. Game-Changers – elements of the world’s political, economic, technological, and social fabric that could affect the trends in major ways;
  3. and a Set of Potential Worlds – alternative futures that could result from the dynamic interaction among elements of the first two sections.

The report and the methodology used to create it are designed “to stimulate thinking about the rapid and vast geopolitical changes characterizing the world today and possible global trajectories during the next 15-20 years.” This report certainly started me thinking. Among other things, it helped me review just how many of the worldwide challenges we face that can be met with more effective use of space technologies, particularly geospatial ones. Unfortunately, the world community falls far short in using space systems effectively to tackle these challenges, many of which could improve the chances of reaching sustainable Earth environments.

Among the report’s broad conclusions is the likelihood that as a result of increased population and the growth of the middle class in developing countries, demand for food and clean water resources will increase, potentially leading to regional scarcities that engender or exacerbate conflict. As readers of this magazine are well aware, climate change will likely have a major impact on humankind’s ability to meet these resource needs, especially in developing countries.

That line of thinking led me to focus on two other security-related reports that have appeared in the past year and a half, both issued by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). The first saw the light of day in July 2011 (see Imaging Notes, Winter 2012). Appropriately titled, Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security (, this report laments the steep decline in U.S. environmental monitoring capabilities and urges the U.S. Government to put additional resources toward maintaining and even strengthening the capacity for environmental monitoring. U.S. national security depends on it.

As shown by the surprisingly rapid losses of ice in the Arctic Sea, Greenland, and Antarctica and other dramatic environmental changes over the past few years or so, climate change is occurring at a much faster rate than climate scientists had predicted. Yet our ability to track these and other environmental modifications and to analyze how they might affect food production or access to water resources in regions around the world is declining as resources for this purpose dry up.

There is a strong disconnect between what the scientific and technical communities are capable of doing and the financial resources available to carry out crucial tasks of environmental monitoring. As the CNAS report documents, these lacks undermine U.S. national security in several important ways. For example, according to a National Academy of Science study released in May 2012 (, we are faced with a serious gap even in the ability of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide the basic accurate weather forecast services that we depend upon every day in our fast-paced world, even though 95 percent of the data inputs to U.S. meteorological models derive from space-borne platforms devoted to weather monitoring.

The more sophisticated scientific information available from NASA’s declining EO research capabilities have helped scientists and policymakers understand better how and at what rates the world’s environments are changing. They have provided the basic data for developing environmental trend models. Yet nearly all of the rich collection of environmental research satellites that NASA lofted into orbit during the last decade have passed the end of their design lives and many of their instruments will not be replaced with new versions, further reducing our ability to follow environmental trends.

It is necessary to monitor climate change, not only to track it for the scientific knowledge gained but also to provide the information needed for advance warning to populations likely to be affected.

Not all changes in climate are likely to be negative for the affected populations; some will be beneficial. Warming trends, for example, could extend the growing season in northern regions while leading to hotter, drier weather in already parched regions of the U.S. Southwest. For farmers and others whose businesses are weather dependent, it is very important to have advance warning about the impacts of major environmental changes so that they can plan ahead. Space systems can help with those tasks.

Climate change models strongly suggest that storms will become a lot more frequent and more severe. Hence it will be especially important for emergency management officials to use every tool at their disposal to track progress of major storms, to monitor the oceans for the occurrence of tsunamis, and to track deformations of Earth’s surface in earthquake zones. Satellite systems are particularly good at those tasks. Sentries in the Sky: Using Space Technologies for Disaster Response, the latest CNAS report, focuses on space systems and natural disasters (link). In it, analyst Will Rogers argues that America could make much better use of space technology to mitigate the damage and destruction of major natural disasters.

This latest CNAS report centers in on the use of space systems to support tsunami detection and prediction, but many of its conclusions can be applied to other natural disasters, from earthquakes, flooding, and hurricanes to long-term drought. Major natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy have garnered a lot of attention because of the tremendous damage and disruption they inflict on people and infrastructure in a short period, but incremental changes in average temperature over a long term can well inflict more economic damage and social disruption. EO satellite systems, because they provide a repeatable, synoptic view of Earth’s surface and the atmosphere, are ideal for long-term, regional studies of environmental change.

Altering the current declining course will require not just additional funding, but the development of innovative ways to provide the needed data and the modeling and analytic tools needed to make effective use of the satellite data. Sentries in the Sky argues, for example, that modest investments in government and academic research programs could be targeted toward “improving current disaster management tools…that help disseminate information more rapidly to first responders.” The report also suggests that the government should explore the feasibility of placing sensors on commercial satellites, such as new communications satellites. Such a practice could reduce costs and spur innovation. It also emphasizes the role that international cooperation can play in easing funding constraints for any one agency or country.

Taken together, these three reports present not only an assessment of the world community and where it might be headed, but also a set of solutions to address several of the most serious challenges we face, based on more effective use of space technologies. Because these challenges are global ones, we should be tackling them together as a global community.

Global Trends 2030 notes that one of the major challenges we face is the question of evolving better governance mechanisms, on all levels, local, country, regional, and international. Organizing more effective governance of space activities, especially for environmental monitoring, could assist that process.

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