NASA’s newly launched carbon-tracking satellite shows the agency believes the political battle over climate change will be won by bulletproof data and better use of social media to spread the information.

The last time I was close to a rocket, it was an incoming missile that tore through a steel-plated container at Kandahar Airfield, 10 metres away from Canada’s task force headquarters in southern Afghanistan. It was 2010 and rocket attacks were common in Kandahar. By some fluke, the ordnance inside this rocket did not detonate and the destruction was limited to the damage caused by its fairing cracking in half and the pieces crashing into the base. No one was hurt. Had it detonated properly, the headquarters where I was posted would have been in ruins.

So it was slightly surreal to find myself this past Canada Day looking at another rocket on another military base, this time poised to hopefully save lives rather than take them. I was part of a group of journalists and social media “influencers” invited to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the US Air Force’s space and missile testing base, for a landmark satellite launch. The Delta II rocket on the launch pad stood almost 40 metres high, dwarfing the one I saw in pieces in Kandahar. And the Delta’s payload wasn’t ordnance but a NASA satellite called Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), a $467-million carbon-tracking observatory being launched with the aim of preserving human life on the planet.

The satellite was NASA’s second attempt to get a carbon-tracker into orbit (the first OCO crashed shortly after launch into the Indian Ocean in 2009). From 705 kilometres above the Earth, its successor can measure, with almost perfect accuracy, where the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from and where it ends up. The satellite will, in the words of a NASA spokeswoman, “watch the Earth breathe.”

This is war of a different sort. It is a struggle to confront the dangers posed by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that threaten to raise temperatures to levels that may profoundly alter human life. It comes at a time when political will has been sapped from the drive to control carbon emissions. Despite the large scientific consensus on human-induced climate change, those who resist the political and economic changes required to curb the threat have succeeded in creating doubt in the public mind about the science.

In this fight for hearts and minds, NASA believes victory belongs to those armed with the best information and data.

In this fight for hearts and minds, NASA believes victory belongs to those armed with the best situational awareness, information and data. And OCO-2 is a weapon in that war over data.

In 1964, Canadian communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote that “if cold war is being fought by informational technology, that is because all wars have been fought by the latest technology available in any culture.” And while OCO-2 is NASA’s big gun, the digital technology of social media forms an essential part of the strategy in the war over climate change. Using Twitter, NASA crowd-sourced 50 social media users to attend the launch in hopes of targeting the widest audience possible.

I was one of three Canadians invited to help reach those still uncertain or hostile to science that NASA and almost the entire scientific community see as incontrovertible. “You’re the latest weapon we have,” said Charlie Bolden, the retired Marine general and former astronaut who now runs NASA, told us. “Just by your being here and doing what you do, you’ve opened up avenues of communication for us.”

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield can take some of the credit for this new offensive. NASA has always been active in the social media space, but Hadfield, in his tweeting, guitar-playing mission to the International Space Station, showed how personality and idiosyncrasies, properly deployed, can build an audience. The social media offensive is NASA’s attempt to close the gap between science and public discourse on climate change. Our group of invited guests included the social media guru for Nintendo Games, The Tonight Show‘s science guy and writers for Slate and the Huffington Post, along with a host of Twitterati, bloggers and commentators on science, environment and defence.

To address what NASA officials call a “false debate” on climate, they opened the gate to one of the most secure bases in America. An Atlas missile that once pointed toward the Soviet Union sits, unarmed, as a reminder of Vandenberg’s Cold War role, and rockets still leave from here carrying secret spy satellites into orbit. It is less Cape Canaveral than Area 51: you won’t find a NASA gift shop. But it does house new partners in space innovation. South African-born, Canadian-passport-carrying visionary Elon Musk launches his Dragon and Falcon spacecraft from here and recently won NASA contracts to provide delivery vehicle service to the International Space Station. The Delta II rocket being used to deliver OCO-2 into orbit is being launched by United Launch Alliance, another private sector partnership.

But while manned exploration remains part of NASA’s mandate and a mission to Mars is still on the books for sometime in 2030, much of what the agency does is science aimed at solving problems on Earth: measuring the receding polar ice cap, for example, and now getting an accurate picture of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The original Orbiting Carbon Observatory was launched from this base five years ago, but failed to reach orbit when its nose cone balked at separating and the satellite fell into the sea. NASA made plans for a second carbon-tracking satellite almost immediately, but there were gut-check moments when this launch was scrubbed with just 42 seconds to go on July 1. But a day later, Mission Control ran through the launch sequence again and the Delta lifted off.

The rocket I experienced in Kandahar had a high-pitched scream that ran up my spine and caused me to instinctively drop to the ground. Given that space and weaponized missiles share designs — the engine for the Delta II rocket launching the satellite was originally designed for the Thor missile program — one might imagine a similar noise. But what I heard was not a scream but a deep, expansive and earth-quaking rumble that travelled from my feet into my chest. The instinct is not to hit the deck but to stand and face the sky.

For at least the next two years the satellite will measure the global carbon cycle, offering a picture of where the carbon is generated and absorbed.

Naturally OCO-2 tweeted its journey into orbit. But the most important message to Earth is in the data. For at least the next two years, the observatory will complete one Earth orbit every 98 minutes to measure the global carbon cycle, offering a high-resolution picture of where the carbon is generated and where it is absorbed. Locating these sources and “sinks” of carbon dioxide is difficult due to the rapid movement of carbon dioxide across the globe. But OCO-2 will have the accuracy, resolution and coverage needed to provide the first complete picture of the geographic distribution and seasonal variations of both human and natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions, as well as where they are being absorbed.

NASA hopes that the data will help policy-makers and business leaders make better decisions to ensure climate stability. Armed with the belief that you can manage only what you can measure and prove, the agency will make the data from OCO-2 available to all governments. The open access to the data (eventually to be found at underscores the global nature of this fight for climate security. The question then becomes what governments choose to do with the evidence. “The key thing is the people who can make big decisions, to get them to recognize this as a societal problem and make it a priority for our nations,” said NASA deputy project scientist Annemarie Eldering.

At the moment, governments are clearly divided on the way forward. The new Australian government recently reversed the carbon tax that had been implemented by its predecessor, calling it a job killer. On the other hand, the United Kingdom government has long seen climate change as a matter of national security, coining the term “climate security.” By providing a fuller picture of carbon cycles, NASA’s monitoring should provide data that aim to remove some of the room for political obfuscation on the science.

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Whether that works or not remains to be seen. The climate change debate has become a political and cultural war, the shouting often drowning out the science. OCO-2 is a highly precise tool that ensures the science is measurable and, ultimately, harder for governments to manipulate. But NASA’s emphasis on social media demonstrates an understanding that data are not enough. Those advocating action on climate change need a story to tell. This is a battle not just for science but for control of the narrative.

A small victory was recently scored in Britain, where the BBC warned its reporters against giving a platform to the tiny minority of scientists who deny climate change, arguing that “false balance” is not compatible with good science reporting. There have been similar calls for Canadian media to follow suit.

But more than mainstream media is needed if we hope to change the discourse from our addiction to conflict (the left-right, he said-she said dichotomy that characterizes our cable TV political culture) to one that adheres to what the science is telling us. The digital age has stripped traditional media gatekeepers of their monopoly over information. By actively seeking to engage the social media space where climate denial has taken root, NASA has thrown down the gauntlet to all the bad science and misleading opinion that lurks online, seeking to respond with science to correct the record.

In live-tweeting the launch of OCO-2, social media attendees noted with particular interest that responses and tweets almost without exception related the satellite’s mission to what governments were actually doing on climate change policy. It is that digital cacophony that can compel governments to listen and, perhaps, act. While NASA has now taken the fight over climate change into space, our fate will ultimately be determined by all of us here on Earth.

Photo: Nadezda Murmakova / Shutterstock

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