Attending the GMES in Action conference in Copenhagen – a high-level, European Union-convened get-together about the future of environmental monitoring from space – I had two interrelated thoughts.
The first was that I was drowning in a sea of incomprehensible acronyms (the same thought that struck George Orwell when he went out to fight in Spain in the 1930s for a militia called the POUM, not to be confused with the PSUC, the CNT etc). The second was that one of our current malaises is the tendency to talk about really important things in a language of deadly technocratic dullness.
Listening to a series of well-drilled delegates presenting their cases for the economic (and other, but mainly economic) benefits of satellite earth monitoring, you might at times have thought the subject under discussion was something like the maximum permitted curvature of bananas or the standardisation of mini-roundabouts.
It took the passionate Jacqueline McGlade, director of the European Environment Agency, and the irrepressible Peter Hulsroj, director of the European Space Policy Institute, to point out that what we had assembled to discuss was more momentous than that. If Europeans had had microscopes in the 14th century, together with more advanced ideas about the transmission of diseases, they might have made the connection between rat fleas and the black death; avoided hundreds of millions of fatalities and the mother of all economic depressions. The cost of environmental pollution was already reckoned to be €160bn a year, said McGlade: but the benefits of GMES go beyond the monetary, providing information that could have a positive impact on the quality of life, and life chances, of hundreds of millions of people.
But to go back to those acronyms. GMES stands for Global Monitoring for Environment and Security. That might sound both unwieldy and even a touch sinister, but its less-than-sinister purpose is to provide us – all of us – with steady and reliable information, delivered in as close to real time as possible, about the state of the atmosphere, the oceans (including sea-level rise associated with climate change), the melting of sea-ice and glaciers, floods and droughts, the aftermath of earthquakes, explosions and volcanic eruptions (to help with relief operations). A key component of that provision is delivered via space satellites, which are currently facing a funding crisis. Following the loss of the Envisat satellite (which carried on gamely for five years after its predicted retirement), the future of the new generation of Sentinel satellites due to be launched by the European Space Agency has been jeopardised by the refusal of EU Commissioners to guarantee them core EU funding.
Of course, the current fashion is to frame all arguments in terms of economics, finance and numbers. It is perfectly possible to make good economic arguments for GMES and the Sentinels: to talk about the potential for green growth, up to 20m new jobs (and how desperately Europe needs those), clusters of eco-industries, a fourfold or even tenfold (according to independent studies) return on investment. These are good arguments but they are not the only arguments. (Thank God, by the way, I grew up before the time when the benefits of studying Hamlet or King Lear had to be computed in terms of potential economic “impact”. Spiritual and emotional impacts, the deepening of a soul, still seemed sufficient.)
The arguments about GMES can be put in much wider European and, ultimately, ethical contexts. Europe, currently the subject of so much gloomy and sometimes malevolent commentary, is a world leader in environmental policy; it has a record of setting tough targets and real watershed limits, rather than merely engineering markets of doubtful efficacy. GMES is an opportunity for Europe to reassert its voice and leadership in this area, to stand up for good governance of the planet. Not many other people are doing that right now. Public access to space imagery could serve to mobilise communities and new generations around environmental awareness, at local, national and global levels.
Here might also be an opportunity to remind ourselves of what the whole European project was originally intended to be about, beyond mere economics – and how it could regain its power as an ethical beacon. Robert Schuman may have started with an apparently technocratic scheme for a Coal and Steel Community, but as he made clear in his famous 1950 declaration, technocracy was never the final goal. The goals were peace, and freedom, and prosperity, radiating outwards from a reborn, chastened Europe into the developing world (very much part of Schuman’s vision, though often betrayed in practice by the EU, for example in its indefensible fishing policies).
The biggest global challenge facing us now (yes, bigger than the possible break-up of a currency union) is climate change – a challenge that requires collective action, which is likely to impact most damagingly on the poor, and which involves our responsibilities to future generations. As we try to plot a course that does not bring human development into disastrous conflict with the ecosystems that sustain human life, and the life of other species, why would we want to smash the compass and tear up the charts?