Visualizing climate change opinions

For the first time in two years, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication updated it Climate Opinion Map. Following the rhetoric of the past election and the subsequent censorship and deregulation it is an interesting look at the state of national opinion. The interactive map is a goldmine of data, based on the answers of people fro every state, county, congressional district in the country to 17 survey questions encompassing beliefs, risk perceptions, policy support, and personal behaviors.

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The graphic allows the user to look at a map either by absolute value, as displayed above, or by deviation from the national average confidence in climate change, displayed below. (A comparison of these two maps is an interesting lesson in how data visualizations based off the same data can tell different stories.)

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Right now the map is divided by counties, but change the metrics on the left and you can divide by congressional districts, hone in on metro areas, or look at the state wide portrait. You can also look at any of these factors for just one state at a time. Here is a look at just Massachusetts:

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But the best thing this visualization has to offer is that it allows you to view the country in terms of each of the 17 survey questions. Sure, 70 percent of people in the United States believe that global warming is happening, but how many people think that global warming is already causing harm? Turns out only about 53 percent.

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I could go on explaining all the cool things this graphic can do, but the best thing to do is just go around with it, you can see some pretty incredible things, both surprising and unsurprising. And best of all, it brings you outside your news bubble!

“For the first time, it’s given us a chance for us to see the incredible diversity within the country,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told Scientific American. “It’s like a biologist being given a microscope for the first time.”

Bill and Bernie talk climate change

Popular champions of science for the masses Senator Bernie Sanders and scientists Bill Nye sat down this morning to talk about the importance of addressing climate change in the United States despite and because the current administration’s denial that it exists.


The interview is not subtle and the pair jumps quickly between topics following Sanders questions. Neither do they dive too deeply into any one topic. But the interview does serve as a crash course on the sheer magnitude of the effects of global climate change from environmental to economic to human interest.

Over the course of half an hour, the pair touched on the practicalities of creating new jobs in America through the implementation of clean energy, how climate change skeptics spread uncertainty in the face of settled scientific facts, and tips for home owners who want to conserve more energy.

For any number of reasons, it is easy to see a grim future from where we are now, and Bill and Bernie certainty touch upon that. They discussed economic and ecological costs of increasingly frequent storms: severe but manageable in the developed world, much worse in less-developed countries.

But they also talked about how to Nye left that audience with some tidbits of optimism.

“I think if we can get these people to look at the world a little differently they will be on the side of domestic reproduced renewable electricity in a very quick short order,” Nye said.

Scientists get political

Science shouldn’t be a political issue. For a long time scientists tended to stay in the lab or out in the field rather than go into politics where the line between facts and lies has become increasingly blurry.

But there is something of a political awakening among scientists going on at the moment. Rather than argue about politics in the face of the current reality, scientists are enacting a new tactic. They are planning to fight back.

“The idea that [scientists] should be above the fray has been slowly unraveling as researchers realize that their own aloofness may largely be to blame for public disregard for the evidence on issues like climate change or vaccine safety,” Amy Harmon and Henry Fountain wrote in a piece for the New York Times.  “In the era of Trump, some say it could finally come completely apart.”

It started with plans to follow in the footsteps of the nation’s women and march on Washington in the name of science. Facebook pages for sister marches around the country soon popped up after. The data is set for April 22, 2017, Earth Day.

But other scientists have set their sights higher than that, realizing the only way to control the future of science research in America is to have a seat at the table. Paleo-ecologist Jacquelyn Gill from Maine and Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen from California both intend to run for Congress in 2018. For those who wish to follow in their footsteps, the organization 314 Action is hosting training sessions aimed at scientists and engineers thinking about getting into politics.

“I’m not sure I’m the best vehicle for this,” Dr. Eisen, told the New York Times.“But if we want to defend the role of science in policy making, scientists need to run for office.”

After all, if Trump can get into politics with no political experience anyone can! (That’s the American DreamTM right?)

The change won’t happen all at once, of course.

“Right now it’s mostly talking about what to do,” Jonathan Overpeck, director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of Arizona, told the Times. “We’re scientists — we tend to plan very carefully what we do and then we try to do it well. But certainly there’s an elevated sense that this is very real.”

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. deletes climate change

Since Donald Trump was elected president, climate scientists afraid of government-sponsored censorship have been scrambling to back up their data. On Friday these fears were realized when the URL disappeared – it now redirects to the website of the newly inaugurated president’s transition team.

The page that once outlined Barack Obama’s plans to combat climate change and protect the environment now details the America First Energy Plan, which accuses environmental regulations with harming workers and promises to revive the coal industry.

“For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry,” the newly updated page reads. “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years.”

The Climate Action Plan, which was proposed by  Mr. Obama in 2013, called for reduced carbon emissions through use of renewable energy, and increased study of climate change. The Waters of the U.S. Rule is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that protects waterways within the U.S., including many critics believe should fall under state jurisdiction.

Not only does the new website not mention climate change, it no longer allows the public to read about existing laws regarding climate change. The Washington Post reports that the White House pages about the National Environmental Policy Act and the Council on Environmental Quality can no longer be found.

By nature, laws can only be fairly upheld if they are understood by the people who must abide by them – a difficult task when the government responsible for upholding the law purposely hides that information, unless of course the government does not really want them upheld.

With any luck, the watchful eye of the climate conscious public will not let these changes go unnoticed and thereby Mr. Trump and his administration accountable.

Here to help in that goal is Columbia Law School’s newly designed Climate Deregulation Tracker – a system designed to keep track of regulatory changes made by Trump’s administration on climate change, renewable energy and the fossil fuel industry. The tool was made in anticipation of the changed President Trump’s team would enact and aims to provide context for these changes.

“We think it’s really important the Trump administration’s climate policies aren’t being viewed in a vacuum,” Michael Burger, executive director of Colombia’s Sabin Center for Climate Law,  which created the tool, told InsideClimate News.


What this blog is all about

In my previous job at The Christian Science Monitor I spent months covering what might happen to the Environmental Protection Agency, to the Department of Energy’s renewable energy projects, and to the landmark Paris Climate Accord under the supervision of climate change skeptic Donald Trump as president of the United States. While such speculation sometimes felt futile and fear-mongering, I ultimately felt that such reporting was necessary for the public to be informed about what exactly a president can and cannot do to reverse environmental protections and deregulate the energy sector.

This country is one of world’s largest contributors to climate change, but we are also in a position to influence real change around the world by setting a precedent of taking responsibility and working to mitigate climate change.

Through this blog I will be following a specific beat: how climate and environmental policy change under Mr. Trump’s presidency at both the federal and state levels. Drawing information from a variety of publications – including Science Daily, Inside Climate News, Grist, Yale Climate Connections, and The Washington Post and The Guardian’s energy and environment sections – and occasionally my own original reporting, I aim to create a comprehensive look at what changes are being made at the federal level, how state and local government attempt to counter those changes, and what it all means for the planet and the people inhabiting it.