Societal Benefits in Weather, Water, and Climate: Understanding, Communication, and Enhancement

Societal Benefits in Weather, Water, and Climate: Understanding, Communication, and Enhancement

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Executive Summary

Humanity is experiencing a period of rapid global change—defined here broadly to encompass the separate and combined impacts of technological, societal, and environmental changes occurring throughout the world. Meeting the challenges and opportunities associated with these global changes will depend on understanding, communicating, and enhancing the societal benefits of Earth system observations, science, and services (OSS).

Earth system OSS inform and guide the activities of innumerable institutions underlying modern civilization and virtually every social and economic sector. OSS are a foundational component of efforts to meet basic human needs, including having access to food, shelter, energy, and health and safety, among others. This makes OSS a basic building block for virtually all infrastructure nationally and globally. At the same time, the opportunities for societal benefit from OSS are increasing dramatically.

This study seeks to 1) characterize broadly the societal benefits of OSS, 2) identify the factors that limit the societal benefits of OSS, 3) develop approaches to enhance those societal benefits, and 4) communicate this information to internal audiences (i.e., the providers of OSS) and external partners (i.e., decision-makers, information users, the media, and the public). 

Modern systems and physical infrastructure are built around capabilities in Earth system OSS. This allows cost savings and the realization of benefits that would otherwise not be possible. For example, the agricultural sector uses Earth system OSS to determine what crops to plant, which varieties to use, when to plant and harvest, and when to apply fertilizers, pesticides, and water. Water resource management relies on OSS to determine water availability, quality, and need. The energy sector relies on forecasts of summer heat and winter cold to predict consumer demands for energy and to avoid blackouts and heating fuel shortages. The transportation sector uses OSS to improve safety, reduce delays, and strengthen supply chains by optimizing routes for surface and airborne travel. Public health uses OSS to recognize when environmental conditions may lead to disease outbreaks or cause weather-related health impacts due to floods, heat waves, and extreme events. Disaster preparedness and response efforts rely on OSS for advance warning and ongoing assessments as extreme events occur (e.g., winter storms, droughts, hurricanes, tornados, floods, heat waves, singular environmental catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and accumulating environmental damage and degradation). National security depends on OSS domestic safety and for strategic and tactical decisions involving the timing of military operations and the resource needs for troops. The Blue Economy—goods and services from the oceans and coasts—is critical to human needs but would be greatly diminished without OSS.

As a result, Earth system OSS comprise an asset that supports the whole of the national and global agenda. These capabilities are distributed across all levels of government (federal, state, local, and internationally), throughout an extensive and growing private sector, and in university research laboratories. Enhancements to Earth system OSS have great potential to create new opportunities and to help overcome societal and environmental challenges. 

Efforts to quantify these societal benefits—economic valuation—contribute to two critical yet somewhat distinct goals: 1) to promote deeper understanding of value and 2) to assist in decision-making. As a result, economic valuation is central to efforts to understand, communicate, and enhance the societal benefits of Earth system OSS. 

There are a wide range of valuation tools and approaches that support these two goals, and it is important to understand what each can offer and how they may be constrained. Notably, different metrics or “numeraires” are more and less capable of capturing different aspects of value. For example, we might hope to understand connections to economic well-being, environmental quality, sustainability, social progress, societal well-being, quality of life, fairness, diversity and inclusion, aesthetic beauty, and so on. 

In focusing on different aspects of value to society, each numeraire offers unique strengths and limitations. This is because the choice of any numeraire emphasizes and obscures different aspects of what matters to us. Of course, we all may value different things differently as well. Nevertheless, valuation inspires consideration of what matters to us, contributes to informed decision-making, and helps us systematically weigh trade-offs when we face them.

Valuation efforts are particularly useful for accounting simultaneously for market and non-market goods and services. Notably, physical and biological systems throughout the world provide both types of goods and services. “Ecosystem services” or “nature’s contributions to people” often include basic life support services such as relatively stable weather patterns and climate; fresh water; purification of air, water, and soil; flood and drought control; and pollinators for crops, among others. Without valuation efforts, even critical goods and services are easy to overlook.

Valuation is also particularly helpful for identifying and addressing market failures—cases when market transactions lead to suboptimal outcomes. Addressing market failures is an opportunity for policies to enhance public well-being at no net cost overall. 

Efforts to enhance the societal benefits of Earth system OSS are most effective when they recognize and account for linkages that permeate weather, water (fresh and salt), and climate (WWC) information and services. For example, benefits emerge from the combination of observations, science, and services—like a car’s steering wheel or engine, each part is necessary, but the true value emerges from the whole of the vehicle. Additional linkages include those among observing systems (e.g., remotely sensed and in situ measurements); across planetary systems (e.g., oceans, atmosphere, hydrology, biological systems, the cryosphere, the lithosphere, space weather, and human systems); through partnerships involving the public, private, academic, and NGO sectors; in collaborations among nations throughout the world; and over weather and climate time scales that span seconds and minutes to days, weeks, months, decades, and centuries. Recognizing and accounting for these linkages is central to efforts to enhance societal benefits from OSS. 

Linkages among public, private, academic, and NGO institutions are particularly important for the societal benefits of Earth system OSS. Each component of the enterprise contributes to societal well-being, albeit in very different ways, with different motivations, and with different limitations. Public investments are often foundational to goods and services provided by the private sector and to the advances that occur through academic research. At the same time, private, academic, and NGO communities contribute substantially to public well-being, often in ways that go beyond any possible contribution from another sector.

Valuation efforts reveal great potential to enhance the societal benefits from Earth system OSS. This potential can be realized through efforts to 1) provide actionable information; 2) prepare and empower information users; 3) create decision-support products and services that harness scientific advances for societal benefit; 4) build strong partnerships among stakeholders, practitioners, and information providers; 5) develop the next generation workforce; 6) recognize and account for linkages; 7) provide an effective policy framework for enhancing both the availability of information and society’s ability to use it; 8) create, strengthen, and evolve partnerships among public, private, academic, and NGO communities; 9) engage and empower the public to demand, understand, use, and contribute to water information and services; and 10) reduce or eliminate market failures, when they occur. 

The ongoing expansion in capabilities of and needs for Earth system OSS create tremendous opportunity that will benefit from careful management in the decades ahead. As one illustration, efforts to provide a truly integrated and digitally accessible understanding of the Earth system are evolving quickly and offer tremendous potential to leverage existing capabilities and serve increasing user needs.

Finally, periodic assessments of opportunities and challenges in the WWC enterprise will be needed. Here we suggest that AMS serve as a neutral convener for a rolling assessment process (e.g., a “septennial assessment”) that brings together the public, private, academic, and NGO communities on a subdecadal time scale. This approach would seek to contribute to rather than duplicate ongoing and future assessment efforts.