Seeing Climate Change — in Time to Act on it

Landscape planner Stephen R.J. Sheppard explains how the systematic use of visualization techniques can help communities see local effects of climate change, adapt to its impacts, and reduce their contributions to its causes — while improving their quality of life.

FEMA is issuing updated flood maps for some of the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, and the agency will be issuing new flood maps for other areas in coming months. Property owners whose buildings were damaged or destroyed by Sandy’s storm surge must now re-consider their options. Flood insurance will be more expensive in areas now considered to lie within the 10-year or 100-year flood zones — unless the ground floor of the building is raised above the projected flood level.

In covering this news, the New York Times provided overviews of the new flood zones for city residents. And although the new maps do not incorporate projected rises in sea level fueled by climate change, other news outlets and watchers did make that point: people living in coastal communities must adjust to changing conditions.

The ongoing rollout of the new FEMA maps thus appears to meet at least two of the three principles for effective communication of climate change spelled out in a new book by Stephen R.J. Sheppard, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Forest Management at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and Director of the Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP):

(1) make it local;
(2) make it visual; and
(3) make it connected.

Because the FEMA maps deal with very specific locales, down to the zip code, they are local. And as maps, they are obviously visual. But what sort of connections do these maps make for the people living in these affected zip codes?

By the end of the first part of Sheppard’s bookVisualizing Climate Change: A Guide to Visual Communication of Climate Change and Developing Solutions (hereafter VCC) — readers will understand that the FEMA maps can be seen as just the start of the process of communicating climate change. To act on climate change, citizens must see the connections between where and how they live and all aspects of climate change — causes and mitigations and impacts and adaption — and they must connect with the decision-making processes through which their community will respond to climate change. Without engaging this bigger picture, individual decisions about insurance policies and building options — which are responses to just one possible impact of climate change and no response at all to the causes — might actually exacerbate the problem they are meant to address.

To draw and fill-in this bigger picture, Sheppard offers a set of visualization techniques and planning strategies communities can use to envision and deliberate about possible futures with climate change. These techniques run from the simple (e.g. point-and-shoot photography) to the very complex: the 3D visualizations made possible by computer-aided data analysis and graphic design. To supplement the guidance provided by his book, Sheppard also offers Web-videos, a video game, training modules, and an e-book. But, Sheppard noted in an e-mail exchange with The Yale Forum, the 511-page, hard-cover book possesses an organic sort of resilience: It’s not subject to power outages and hard-drive crashes.

The Design and Appearance of VCC

VCC is divided into four parts: (1) “Setting the Scene on Climate Change,” (2) “Knowing, Seeing, and Acting on Community Carbon and Climate Change,” (3) “Switching Lenses: Changing Minds with Visual Learning Tools,” and (4) “With New Eyes to See: What the Future Looks Like with Climate Change.”

Each chapter within these four parts is then systematically subdivided into an overview, a narrative explanation of the main points or lessons, a portfolio of photographs and graphics, explanatory or illustrative sidebars or “boxes,” a final summary, endnotes, and suggestions for further reading.


Chapters 4–9 and 14 also include a section on a neighborhood in the fictional town of “Climateville.” Rather like “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” which Sheppard cites, this neighborhood, with its six demographically distinct residents, provides a cross section of public attitudes and behaviors that Sheppard uses to show how values, beliefs, and circumstances affect an individual’s ability and willingness to see and act on climate change.

Through its calibrated combinations of text, photographs, tables, infographics, maps, and computer-generated landscapes, VCC is itself an example of systematically structured visualization.

Communicating Climate Change: Barriers and Obstacles

To provide the necessary background, Sheppard opens with brief overviews of climate science, the barriers and obstacles one encounters in communicating that science, and the circuitous routes by which people move from first hearing about a problem to actually doing something about it.


Many of these points — e.g. climate change is difficult to communicate because it’s a complicated phenomenon; its effects have been seen as distant and remote; and the connections between individual actions and the global problem seem tenuous — will be familiar to regular Yale Forum readers. So too will be many of the experts he cites to support his points.

But through his Community-Awareness-to-Action-Framework, Sheppard organizes this material in a new way that expressly connects it with the local. Learning about climate change, which starts with hearing and proceeds to understanding or knowing, will not lead to action unless individuals also recognize its potential impacts in their lives and in their community. And recognizing the local role of climate change depends on actually seeing the local landscape, especially on seeing changes in that landscape. The critical step between recognizing and acting is caring, feeling connected to a local landscape and community and feeling empowered to act with others in support of that landscape and community.

The most widely available authoritative works on climate change to date — televised documentaries like Earth: The Operators’ Manual and feature films like An Inconvenient Truth and, most recently, Chasing Ice — have concentrated on moving audiences from hearing to knowing. VCC, by contrast, focuses on the progression from seeing to acting. And to meet this challenge, Sheppard introduces readers to several local landscapes, including actual communities he has worked with in British Columbia and his imagined neighborhood in Climateville.

Seeing the Parts, and the Whole, of Climate Change

In part two of his book, Sheppard uses these local landscapes to show how the distinctly different aspects of climate change — causes, impacts, mitigation, and adaptation — can be observed and recognized. A separate chapter is devoted to each aspect, but every chapter takes readers through the same set of moves.

In the chapter on causes (“Right Before Our Eyes: Seeing Carbon”), for example, Sheppard first explains, in words supplemented by graphs and maps, “How carbon emissions work.” These processes are then visualized in two “albums” of photographs. (On each page four photographs appear to be taped to a sheet of brown paper, with their captions affixed below.) The first album consists of stock photographs that illustrate the environmental costs of fossil fuel production. The second album features personal photographs of “Fossil fuels in the neighborhood”; these photos connect the activities and materials of suburban life with the different sources of CO2 that figure in the global carbon budget. Sheppard ends the chapter by comparing the carbon footprints of his six Climateville residents.

In the final chapter of this section, “Seeing the Big Picture on Community Carbon and Climate Change,” Sheppard explains how the plan or design of a community figures in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions and in its capacity to respond to the impacts of a changed climate. After providing smaller photo-albums for several low-carbon, attractive, and resilient (LoCAR) projects and communities, Sheppard links these local efforts with the “global stabilization scenarios” described in IPCC reports. Effective planning at the local level entails informed decisions about the average global temperatures that will result from actions — or inactions — at the global level. Sheppard ends this chapter with a look at his Climateville neighborhood in 2020.

Using Visualization Techniques to Help Others See Climate Change

In Part III, Sheppard turns to the task of explaining, and showing, how visualization techniques can be used to help communities envision and make decisions about local implications of IPCC’s different global stabilization scenarios. But before getting into the specifics, he spells out his guidelines for effective visual communication:

  • Clarity: make it easily seen and understood.
  • Trust: make it honest, balanced, and verifiable.
  • Engagement: keep it interesting and inclusive.
  • Connectivity: link climate change to people, place, and context.
  • Feasibility: keep it practical.

The first set of techniques Sheppard considers involve no more than the simple media he has already used in the preceding chapters: tables and charts, photographs, and explanatory captions or signage. Concerned individuals or groups can create inventories of carbon emissions and impact-sensitive resources and sites. Photo-albums can be created to supplement the itemized data. “Landscape messaging” (plaques, signs, posters, billboards, and other public displays) can then be used to call attention to climate change — its causes, impacts, mitigations, and/or adaptations — in one’s community. And websites can be created to organize captioned photographs, maps, and diagrams into a coherent visual narrative.

The second set of techniques reviewed by Sheppard require a working knowledge of the visual media tools included in widely available software and those provided by open-access websites, such as Google Earth and Google Maps. These can be used to visualize the distribution of the causes and impacts of climate change on local maps. In this chapter, Sheppard provides a portfolio of images created by importing local data into graphing, charting, or mapping programs. Sheppard uses his communication guidelines to evaluate each type of visual (graph, chart, diagram, map, video), highlighting possible pitfalls and offering helpful tips.

The third set of techniques, for “Visualizing the Future,” requires more advanced knowledge of computer-aided design or imaging programs. These can be used to create digital versions of local landscapes, which can then be subjected to the projected impacts of climate change: flash floods, rising sea-levels, drought, etc. These virtual landscapes can be compelling, but, Sheppard also warns, they pose special risks: deliberate deception or overkill on the part of the image makers; overly subjective reactions, disbelief, or habituation on the part of their viewers.

The final visualization strategy Sheppard explores, 4D Visioning, weds community planning models with advanced imaging techniques. In this version of “climate change visioning,” citizens who participate in community planning events are shown visualizations of problems and solutions at critical points in their assessment and decision-making dialogue. Through these advanced visualizations, a community can see how the different IPCC global stabilization scenarios might play out on its local landscape. As Sheppard’s own diagrams suggest, this process can be protracted and complicated, involving separate visualizations for different components of the local landscape under two, three, or four scenarios.


View larger image

The four scenarios Sheppard works with in his examples, in varying combinations, are “Do Nothing,” “Adapt to Risk and Vulnerability,” “Efficient Development,” and “Deep Sustainability.” Much dialogue and forethought are required to determine which local features should be visualized and under what scenarios. The first set of visualizations may then prompt proposals that require additional visualizations. At the end of this process, however, the community can see the tradeoffs they must consider.

The Other Reason for Focusing on the Local

In the final part and chapter of VCC, Sheppard shows what an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions might look like. As in the previous chapter, he first considers four possible futures — this time for South Delta, a rural, coastal community south of Vancouver — for which he provides four portfolios of computer-generated images. (In the two-page spread from VCC provided below, the flooding of South Delta in a “Do Nothing” world is visualized on a map and in successive views of the landscape.)

These visualizations were part of a planning dialogue his Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning actually conducted with South Delta community members. In response to visualizations of the “Do Nothing” baseline, in which a significant portion of the local landscape would be inundated by rising sea levels, the community now is considering four strategies, neatly visualized in this set of simple diagrams.

Sheppard then makes one final visit to the fictional Climateville — in the year 2050: “[T]he folks of Climateville have learned to live with less, in smaller homes, to slow down a bit, [to] stop and smell the roses more often, not to mention the locally grown garlic.” In the stores, they find “a more limited selection of goods and imported foods.” Foreign travel is limited by “the sky-high prices for zeppelin travel.” And in the news are reports of “rioting in other parts of the country.”

Asked about this rather dire verbal visualization in a follow-up phone conversation, Sheppard provided additional context. This final description of Climateville, he pointed out, comes after the review of South Delta’s possible futures under the IPCC’s four global stabilization scenarios. In those four portfolios, choices made by the world as a whole are played out on the local landscape of South Delta.

But what happens if a local community chooses something between “Efficient Development” and “Deep Sustainability” and the rest of the world chooses “Do Nothing” or “Adapt to Risk and Vulnerability”? That local community will have to deal with more extreme impacts, impacts it had wanted to avoid. And that is the situation he imagined for Climateville in 2050: Climateville itself chose a somewhat greener path, but, to use the current vernacular, the rest of the world, including other parts of Canada, went over the climate cliff before they chose to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not, however, a reason for not acting. As Sheppard intends his final description of Climateville to illustrate, local action can create local resilience and thereby enhance that community’s ability to deal with the consequences of others’ inaction.

And for effective local action, Sheppard concludes, visualizing climate change, while not alone sufficient, is almost certainly necessary.

The Return to the Local — Can Americans Get There from Here?

An old joke has a lost city-slicker asking a farmer for directions to his weekend destination “in the country.” “You can’t get there from here,” the farmer replies.

Sheppard’s model of 4D visioning depends on an engaged, place-based citizenry. In an age of virtual communities, can one still find this kind of local? And, in a country as polarized as the United States, where some view “smart growth” as a Trojan horse for UN-dominated global government, can one generate the extended cooperative planning discussions Sheppard depicts?

Sheppard accepts these questions as valid. Urban/suburban life in the age of the Internet poses real obstacles to the sort of local engagement he envisions. And the public sphere (including the media) in the U.S., he recognizes, is more divided and more skeptical about climate change than is the case in his native Canada. Nevertheless, he sees ways forward on both fronts.

The local, while atrophied in some respects, has not disappeared. Local governments still function — and plan. And people still come together in local groups for all sorts of reasons: neighborhood watches, school boards and PTAs, childcare, dog walking, or recreation. Local engagement with climate change can begin in any one of these settings. The proper strategy, he stresses, is to bring climate change into conversations already taking place, rather than to create a new group or dialogue concerned only about climate change.

And although Canada seems not so divided or skeptical as the U.S., Sheppard’s consulting group has dealt with climate skepticism. Here the focus on the local landscape, and the visualization of that landscape, helps. People can agree on the same course of action for different reasons and with different expectations, and good visualizations can help people explore, together, a variety of outcomes, with their attendant costs and benefits. In short, if you can get the conflicting parties to the table, good visualizations can help get a productive dialogue started. (But, Sheppard acknowledges, outright hostility to the planning process, and to the collection of data for that process, as expressed, for instance, in 2012 in separate incidents in Virginia and North Carolina, may require a different course of action — a task beyond the scope of his book.)

A panel on “Coastal Cities” at a January 2013 Disasters and Environment conference in Washington, D.C., offered examples of positive outcomes from planning discussions in the U.S., when carefully focused on the local landscape. Even before “Superstorm Sandy,” some coastal communities in the Northeast had been wrestling with the problem of rising sea levels, aided by consultants offering services similar to those described in VCC. In the wake of Sandy, more communities are likely to seek such services.

But if climate change is addressed only in parts, only through flood maps and insurance policies, then the picture of the whole could be distorted, like a big creature perceived only by touch. Sheppard’s more comprehensive approach to visualizing climate change in all its parts — causes, impacts, mitigation, and adaptation — offers an effective way to recognize the climate elephant in the room.

And most would see a trumpeting elephant, especially in a finite space, as a call to action.

Editor’s Note: Credits for images used in this feature all taken from Visualizing Climate Change:
(1) Book Cover Images — D. Flanders (CALP);
(2) Climateville — I. Olchovsky;
(3) Community-Action-to-Awareness Framework — J. Myers;
(4) Work Flow Diagram & Steps — I. Pond (CALP); Cube Model for Global-Local Scenarios — S. Sheppard, D. Flanders, and J. Salter (CALP);
(5) Box 14B World 1: Do Nothing About Climate Change — J. Laurenz and D. Flanders (CALP, UBC);
(6) Icons for Flood Risk Scenarios — D. Flanders and K. Tatebe (CALP, UBC).

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimateconnections.org)
Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Seeing Climate Change — in Time to Act on it

  1. Peter Capen says:

    If the consensus of climate scientists is wrong, there will still be a habitable planet. If the climate contrarians are wrong, we are all “toast.”

    • Dan Rogers says:

      What IS the consensus? The climate is warming? Very few people dispute that. Should we try to stop it from happening? Very few people think that is possible, and that we should instead devote our efforts and resources to preparation instead of prevention.

  2. Great article. Yes. There is definite evidence for Climate change but the analysts estimate may wary.What is needed is conscious efforts by one and all to control it. While Global Warming is the Cause,Climate Change is the Effect.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India