On Wednesday, April 1, 2009, Northrop Grumman Corporate Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Alexis Livanos addressed the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Below are his delivered remarks.

The Keys to Climate Change

I’m so pleased to be here in Colorado Springs for another National Space Symposium. With each journey we take around the sun, it seems to me that these annual gatherings become more important and more relevant to our lives. The panel you will hear next will help explain how space is relevant to one of the most important trends affecting our lives today. They will be discussing climate change and the role space systems will play in our response to it. Of course, that is the topic I’m here to discuss as well, so let me start with a question: What is the single most important key to the climate change solution?

Now, this question has quite a large number of defensible answers: Is it Satellites? Or is it air, ground or seaborne platforms? Treaties? Computer modeling? Sensors? Industry? Technology? Private conservation initiatives?

What about Mitigation and Adaptation?

Or perhaps the key will be academia, economics, government, public awareness, budgets, or cap & trade.

Well, those of you who know me probably suspect this for what it is – a trick question. I’m skeptical of anything identified as the single most important key to any complicated problem.

Our approach to addressing the impact of climate change must be a multi-faceted one, and we need a national plan that sets us on a course to provide global leadership on a topic that is vitally important to everyone on this planet.

Space, of course, is extremely important to any solution. Twenty-six of at least 44 of the essential climate variables must be monitored from space. And either directly or indirectly, space touches all of the possible answers I listed to the question. The fact that we currently have about a hundred earth monitoring satellites should make us breathe easier – until we remember that this number will be reduced to about 25 in 20 years.

This is one reason why our approach to the climate change problem must be integrated. The solution must be a comprehensive, system of systems. How comprehensive? The solution must include the technical, but also the non-technical; the familiar, but also the unconventional. It must be flexible and adaptable and provide a variety of information that allows the decision makers to make intelligent choices.

Finding solutions to climate change will require space and other systems that include all the many types and generations of sensors, platforms and communications that space facilitates. It will require those of us in industry to tighten our relationships with NASA and NOAA, but we will also have to tighten or establish relationships with universities and other groups such as private conservation groups. We will need more computing power, but we will also need more interface with industries that would seem to have nothing to do with technology or earth monitoring.

Why? Because any solution must be as comprehensive as the problem it seeks to solve – and if the climate change problem is anything, it is comprehensive. Take the study of ecosystems, for example.

There are about 30,000 different data sets that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified as a sufficient knowledge base for understanding how climate change impacts life on our planet. On its face, that figure sounds pretty complete. But of that 30,000, only a very small number come from the tropics. This knowledge gap is all the more astonishing when you consider that 2 billion people – and at least half of all species on the planet – depend directly on tropical forests to survive. And we all understand how important the forests of these zones are as carbon sinks. The Amazon and Africa’s Congo Basin are just two.

And let me further illustrate how inadequate the current state of our knowledge is. As you know, it is not enough to understand the dynamics of our climate. If we are to mitigate the effects of the coming changes, we must also understand their implications. If climate understanding is to be anything more that an academic exercise, we must come to understand things like the drought patterns and the migration of humans and other species that these changes will induce. And some of these changes could have significant international implications.

Today, that represents a pretty tall order. Data from the tropics comes from either a biologist who hand-counts species on site – one square meter at a time – or from a vast, space-based global view. That leaves quite an enormous gap in the kind of ecosystems monitoring that is so central to future mitigation efforts.

Some of the technology options available to close that gap might include surveillance aircraft, satellite communication systems, which would enable real-time data availability from anywhere on Earth. In addition, sea sensors, underwater sensors, biosensors and nano-sensors can monitor the impact of climate change on eco-communities. Any of those options would require closer cooperation with the private organizations already hard at work on these problems. And some of these changes could have significant international implications.

These information deficiencies might be most acute in tropical areas, but they are present in many others. There are similar challenges to monitoring the Arctic ice melt, which creates a positive feedback process that accelerates the rates of warming and rising sea levels. While recent reports have cast doubt on the accuracy of our past Arctic ice melt measurements, this part of the globe is highly complex, remote, and dynamic. Natural climatic cycles like the Arctic Oscillation further complicate the job of measurement and the job of prediction even more. Computer models keep being refined to predict earlier dates for an ice-free Arctic. But until those models reach a higher level of reliability and predictive fidelity, we will be dependent on more conventional measurement techniques. Again, this calls for closer relationships with private conservation and environmental organizations, as well as those laboratories and research institutions that are working so hard to advance the limits of prediction in computing power.

CO2 recognizes no borders, and climate change respects no nation’s sovereignty. So treaties and intergovernmental cooperation are also critical. The proposed U.S.-led Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS, has enormous potential but it is not yet a reality. There is a lack of central, coordinated planning between countries. In addition, there are sensors and satellites out there owned by many countries, but not nearly enough for a comprehensive system. The successful climate change solution will be a one-for-all and all-for-one proposition.

Policy, however, is political, so the science associated with this issue must be unimpeachable if it is to induce policy. Today that means computer models of ever greater complexity. In turn, that means closer partnerships with the universities and research institutions that possess our nation’s most powerful computers. Technology, policy, international cooperation – these are the components of an integrated solution with which we are all familiar – the technical and familiar components. These concepts seem to be completely in line with national policy.

But, as I said, a comprehensive problem requires a comprehensive, integrated solution. And I contend that such a solution must also include components that are nontechnical and unconventional. I have already mentioned areas of non-technical concern, such as the policy, treaty, and inter-governmental cooperation. An example of the unconventional elements of an integrated solution might include closer cooperation with – and assistance to – industries we might not think would have an interest in space, computing power, or even the kind of high technology we have spent our lives working to advance. Here is an example from my home state: The wine industry.

In 2007, this was an $18 billion business in California. But it is projected that if current warming trends continue, wine growers in California are going to be in real trouble. California’s regions are at their optimum temperatures for their varietals so even the slightest changes will have a large effect. With an average temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit, Napa Valley is in the upper range for producing the industry’s most popular and profitable varietals – merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and chardonnay. The Santa Barbara wine growing region might be lost entirely. The wine industry could be a most valuable partner in an integrated solution – valuable for economic monitoring in the same way that private conservation groups are valuable for the monitoring of ecosystems. The wine industry could also be a valuable partner in the areas of issue advocacy and policy implementation. And, the wine industry is just one climate-sensitive industry.

A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that $3 trillion of the U.S. GDP of $13 trillion is sensitive to climate change. This indicates that there are plenty of industries that could make positive contributions to any integrated solution. Many of them might relate to our efforts and concerns in unconventional ways, but they could be important nonetheless.

This is a global problem and we need sustained engagement in this global commons. But not every nation on the globe is equipped to play an equal role in its solution. The developed world must step up to the plate. And our nation must bring to bear its extraordinary tradition of innovation and unbridled creativity – a combination that has proven to be man’s salvation against countless challenges.

We have spent many hours in this Foundation talking about how to motivate the youth of this country in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing. This is a challenge; this is a mission. We will have to out-think, out-innovate, out-create, out-research, and out-adapt this challenge. What a wonderful opportunity. We cannot afford to limit ourselves in the resources we embrace along the way.

From space to the ocean’s floor, from elements that are familiar and technical to those that are unconventional and non-technical, the climate change solution will have to be as comprehensive and integrated as the problem it seeks to solve. And it gets a young generation excited and it is in alignment with national policy

I look forward to hearing the panel discuss the role of space in this solution, and I look forward to working with you to develop it.