The world is struggling to fund climate change research after President Trump’s 2019 budget plan axed $2 million in contributions to the Green Climate Fund — the global funding pool for climate research, which is managed by the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). For now, the best the UN can do to fund climate change research is to lean heavily into private partnerships — this time, with Google.
According to a United Nations press release from Monday, Google is sharing maps and data from its environmental satellites with a series of national and multinational space agencies associated with the UN.
In the short term, the project will prioritize monitoring freshwater systems — like rivers and lakes, as well as mountains, forests, and wetlands. Climate change has thrown freshwater systems into a frenzy, with dry areas getting drier and wet areas getting wetter. Deserts are also creeping into temperate areas, driving an extensive global dust problem.
One of the most efficient ways to gather data on the dire state of freshwater systems is satellites. Climate change will impact every country, especially economically vulnerable countries in the tropics and global south, but many of these countries don’t have a satellite program.
The U.S., which can afford a robust national satellite program, has significantly deregulated the commercial satellite industry, which is good news for companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and of course, Google. While climate change research funding remains flat, private-public partnerships are science’s best bet, which poses a threat to scientific independence free from corporate motivations, but, what else can you do.
"We are excited to enable all countries with equal access to the latest technology and information in support of global climate action and sustainable development," Rebecca Moore, Google’s director of Google Earth, Earth Engine, and Earth Outreach, said in the UN press release. A few of the agencies that will definitely receive data are NASA, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and the European Space Agency. However, it’s unclear if there’s a selection process in order for other agencies to get access to Google’s data, or if they would need to meet particular research requirements.
While satellite data is invaluable for climate research, it’s not exactly comforting that the world’s largest and most influential cooperative body can’t get the money together to fund this research, and it instead has to lean on a private company — even if that company does have $131 billion to throw around.