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International Cooperation in Climate Monitoring via Satellite: Incentives and Barriers to Data Sharing

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Understanding and addressing climate change requires the collection of a significant amount of environmental data. Satellites offer the best method for collecting much of this data, but given the high costs of satellite systems, it is not practical for one nation to collect all relevant climate data on its own. Further, much of the data currently collected by civilian government systems is not shared freely. Barriers to access for this data reduce both scientific research and operational use, decreasing the overall social benefit from the data. To help understand why data is shared in some cases and not others, and how policy-making in this area might be improved, this brief examines the development of data sharing policies and identifies the barriers and incentives to international sharing of climate data collected by satellites.

Quantitative analysis of satellite data-sharing policies for Earth observation data, as well as case studies of domestic agencies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, show that limits in data sharing are due to 1) a belief that data can efficiently be treated as a commodity, a viewpoint that conflicts with experience for nearly all climate data; 2) the lack of recognition of the normative justification for sharing climate data, though this norm exists for weather data; and 3) insufficient agreement that international cooperation and data sharing are required to adequately monitor climate change. These limits exist due to uncertainties about the nature of the market for climate data, an inadequate understanding of climate impacts and the ability to mitigate them, and an inadequate understanding of the requirements of climate science and operational activities.

To address this situation, countries should adopt free and open policies for government-collected climate data, recognizing that social benefit is maximized when data is treated as a public good and freely shared, and that cost recovery and commercialization of scientific satellite data are not viable. Countries should also share climate data internationally, because it has the potential to save lives and property, creating a moral requirement for sharing. Finally, countries should agree on a minimal set of climate data that must be shared to adequately monitor climate. This agreement should be institutionalized by a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) resolution framework, similar to WMO Resolution 40, which addressed weather data sharing.

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