Though it would be an overstatement to say Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) wants to play God, it’s no exaggeration to say that he hopes to control the weather.
A few weeks ago, Santorum introduced a bill to the Senate Commerce Committee that would control weather information that is now released via the Internet for free by federal agencies like the publicly funded National Weather Service Web site, www.nws.noaa.gov.
Santorum’s bill, and the argument behind it, goes something like this: Federal weather services provide a lot of stuff to citizens, like severe weather warnings, satellite observations and forecast models. But that hurts the private sector because poor little companies like Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather or The Weather Channel, which have to either charge for their services or generate ad revenue, can’t compete with such behemoths like those funded with taxpayer money.
After all, why would somebody pay for something they could get for free, and why would somebody look at advertisements if they didn’t have to? The only way people would is if they were forced to. So that’s what Santorum’s proposing.
Supporters of Santorum’s bill say the National Weather Service wastes millions of dollars every year doing a whole lot of nothing, while simultaneously taking business away from private weather services. This is because, they argue, that National Weather Service’s mission is to basically provide one thing: warnings. So every dollar they spend tracking and reporting weather observations that aren’t hurricanes and tornadoes is squandered.
The bill would regulate the National Weather Service’s online output in hopes of focusing its expenditures and by the way things sound, would only allow the service to forecast when a report is “meant to protect ‘life and property,'” according to The Palm Beach Post.
The logic to rebut Santorum’s bill seems strikingly easy. Wouldn’t giving citizens the most comprehensive data available always protect life and property by providing them yet another outlet to explore weather trends? And doesn’t the National Weather Service have to monitor and report its findings constantly so the public can differentiate mild weather from severe weather?
We’d all be safer if legislators wouldn’t decide for trained meteorologists what should and shouldn’t be reported to citizens. Essentially, Santorum and friends are trying to qualify disasters with vague language that only has business interests in mind. Santorum has no place to decide whether a forecast of six inches of rain is meant to protect ‘life and property’ any more than a report of an impending tornado. Those value judgments fall within the jurisdiction of professionals, and we hope that they’d opt to report more than just alarms to add context to their forecasts.
Like the National Weather Service’s planning and policy director Ed Johnson told The Palm Beach Post, “If someone claims that our core mission is just warning the public of hazardous conditions, that’s really impossible unless we forecast the weather all the time. You don’t just plug in your clock when you want to know what time it is.”