Interacting with climate change

Science can be a pretty inaccessible topic for journalists, particularly when you are writing for a general audience. I know this well, having written my fair share of science stories without a science background. In my own reporting I often found it easier to explain the significance of new scientific findings, be that political, social or purely scientific than I did explaining the actual science at work. But having at least a cursory understanding of the science is important, as the last few days have made painfully clear.

Climate change is one of, if not the biggest story of our generation and so in addition to attempting to change the minds of the skeptics, it is also important that the general public understand what is actually meant by anthropogenic climate change and exactly what human behaviors are actually causing so many problems – because it is more than just burning fossil fuels in big SUVs and an overuse of aerosol spray cans in the 80’s.

The Global Carbon Project, which was formed in 2001 with the goal of developing a complete picture of the world-wide carbon cycle has a great tool called Carbon Story that visualizes the past, present, and future of humans impact on levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

While C02 only scratches the surface of the mountain of damage that humans have done to the planet, it is one of the most widely talked about environmental issues and I personally found this tool to be very informative and engaging.

I would suggest starting where we already are, in the present.

The Present section of this narrative visualizes the 2,000 gigatons of CO2 that human activities have released into the atmosphere as a mass of orange dots. Click on each of the tabs at the top of the screen and those dots divide up to give a percent total perspective on what continents emit the most, what causes the emissions, and when in time the most emissions occurred.

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The Past and Future sections are understandably a lot more complex.

In addition to providing a line graph depicting the levels of C02 in the atmosphere from 800,000 BC through 2015, The Past section also contains a visual history lesson of how the change in human work and lifestyle during the industrial revolution set anthropogenic climate change in motion. It’s a simple but not juvenile explanation of what scientists mean when they talk about “Pre-industrial levels of C02.”

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The future section is obviously speculative, but it allows the user to interact more with the visualization by choosing a path for humanity to take going forward and then showing the consequence to the land, oceans and atmosphere. (Let’s hope the scenario pictured below doesn’t become reality.)

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All of these visualizations were created by a French data visualization agency called WeDoData, which is  the collaborative effort of a team of journalists, data scientists, designers and developers. A lot of their work is in French, but even if – like me – you do not speak French, their work is really beautiful and worth checking out.

Photo Credit: Global Carbon Atlas and WeDoData.


One thought on “Interacting with climate change

  1. I think an additional problem is getting the public emotionally invested in climate change. Terms like “The Environment” and “Climate Change” sound quite dry and scientific, and talk of melting ice caps just sounds remote and abstract. I would suggests scientists should (in public) stop talking about “the environment” and start talking about “Nature” – preserving Nature, defending Nature, nurturing Nature. Furthermore, they should start talking about the local impact of climate change – not on how the rainforests are being destroyed, but how local hedgerows and woodlands might be effected. It might just engender a shift in thinking towards seeing the environment in a positive light. You might be interested in my post on this topic (skip over the first few paragraphs if you are not interested in the political stuff):


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