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Climate change has an image problem. Just one sign of that, among many, is a recent Gallup poll indicating that less than half of the U.S. population (42 percent) thinks climate change will pose a serious threat in this lifetime. That leaves nearly 200 million people in America so far unconvinced of the serious risks most in the science community see lapping at their doors.

A little threat denial may be understandable. Consider, for instance, the dual psychological challenges of a) coming to grips with scientific findings that are uncomfortable, and threatening, let’s say, the prospect of an increasingly inhospitable planet; and b) understanding how the often wonky and impersonal terminology common to climate change discourse – like 2 degrees C by 2100 and 400 ppm—has real and practical relevance to one’s everyday life.

“The way I think about it is, to tell someone that mean temperatures are going to change by two degrees Celsius is almost useless – not quite useless, but not really helpful,” says Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and former Chief Economist of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Obama administration. Greenstone is one of the principals involved in the Climate Impact Lab efforts.

“First of all, most Americans, including myself, still have difficulty going between Celsius and Fahrenheit, so two degrees Celsius as a global mean average is not even in units most people here understand,” he says. (It’s 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, for the record.) “And it also doesn’t tell anything that happens in our communities.”

The question of community impact is exactly what helped inspire Greenstone to seek new ways to bring more precise numbers to life, for more people.

Unlocking the power of visualization

It’s normal and common that it takes time for the public at large to accept science they can’t see for themselves. Take for example, the challenges of understanding and acceptance that plagued Western civilization long after Aristotle had begun asserting that Earth is round.

How could that be? Well, the land looks flat when you’re walking around on it, notwithstanding the valleys and hills and mountains. Right? But once sailors began circumnavigating the globe, and astronauts the atmosphere, more and more people could see there’s nothing flat about the third rock from the Sun.

Giving people 'a sense of what climate change is going to mean on the ground for them.' Click To Tweet

The same out-of-sight/out-of-mind blind-spot can apply to climate change impacts. Except for farmers perhaps in the thick of it, watching profitability erode from recurring droughts, or fishers grappling with unprecedented flooding, climate change for some can seem a distant and invisible threat.

Connecting consequences to ‘everyday life’

So to bring it into real-world focus, Greenstone and three “like-minded co-conspirators” – Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group in New York, Solomon Hsiang of University of California at Berkeley, and Robert Kopp of Rutgers University – formed the Climate Impact Lab. Through it, they hope to quantify and better demonstrate how the changing climate is affecting humanity now and into the future. The group’s website, launched in May 2016, now represents the collaborative work of more than two-dozen climate scientists, economists, and data engineers from across the country.

“We’re trying to give people and communities a sense of what climate change is going to mean on the ground for them,” Greenstone says. By connecting data-driven climate damages to social and economic impacts, he says, the group aims to make the issue more relevant for policymakers, investors, business leaders, and households.

“Our thesis is that part of the reason that climate change is not at the top of most political wish lists is because people aren’t demanding it of their politicians,” Greenstone says. “And partly that’s because the consequences aren’t being expressed in ways that connect to everyday life.”

Mapping out consequences, one locale at a time

Different people want to know different things about climate change, and the Climate Impact Lab is among those trying to help them make those connections. The group on its website features an interactive map so users can explore the past, present, and future of extreme temperatures in 25,000 locales around the world.

Historical map
Climate Impact Lab map, above, shows June-July-August historical temperatures.
End of century map
Second map, above, shows change in average temperatures for June-July-August, assuming RCP 8.5  (representative concentration pathway) of radiative forcing in year 2100. Assumes high greenhouse gas emissions in absence of policy changes and continued high population growth.

Greenstone says he sees this hyper-localization as a major differentiator from previous modeling efforts of this scale, which have had to rely on much more aggregated data – inevitably resulting in some level of generalization. But with recent advances in computing and data science, Greenstone and his cohorts say they now can extract an unprecedented level of detail from massive data-sets, enabling them to uncover exceptionally nuanced relationships between climate and communities.

They say that “coming soon,” their online map will offer variable impacts alongside the current temperature data, from agricultural yields to coastal damage to energy costs. Projections can be filtered using different emission-level scenarios, and at different levels of probability.

Overall, the maps aim to tackle the socio-economic effects of various climate changes, from rainfall and humidity to sea-level rise. This means that in months to come, visitors to the site will be able to scroll between scenarios showing how temperatures and health data will change where they live, or plan to retire; planners can look at how flooding and drought will affect land use (and possibility); and policy makers could pinpoint where infrastructure improvements will be needed to accommodate increasing storm severity and sea-level rise.

Meaningful extrapolations abound from this level of insight. For example, researchers with the Climate Impact Labs partnership have confirmed that certain areas will be harder hit by warming trends than others – and they’ve priced it out. Some already hot counties, for instance in Arizona or Texas, could lose as much as 10 to 20 percent of gross domestic product by the 2080s. Why? In particular because of the combined hit of mortality loss, energy cost increases, and workers simply being too over-heated to do their jobs efficiently. It may sound dire, but this more detailed knowledge could help urban planners plan for adaptation, such as providing more cooling centers.

Now, throw in the social costs of carbon …

And that’s just one takeaway. The project also aims to calculate the cost of the multiple climate impacts mentioned above in order to present a more data-driven estimate of the social cost of carbon than so far has been possible. With more precise understanding of the socio-economic toll of carbon emissions, business leaders, insurance providers, investment advisors, and policy makers alike will be better able to assess risk, plan resource allocation, and strategize for adaptation.

By year-end, Greenstone says he expects the initiative will have estimates of mortality related to rising temperatures around the world. And, with the benefit of rapidly evolving data technology, he says the group plans to release its first estimate of the social cost of carbon by next summer.

The project is intended as an ongoing one, according to Greenstone. So, like any big research collaboration, funding will always be an issue. But so far the future is bright with strong support from a variety of funders cited on the group’s website, including EPIC at the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and a handful of individual benefactors.

Lofty goal: ‘Alter political dynamics’

For now, Greenstone says delivering on the group’s mission is “both exciting and challenging” – but he says it stands to be more than worth the while. “By giving people more detailed information about what climate change is going to look like,” he says, “we think it has the potential to alter the political dynamics around climate change.”

No small challenge that, as changing the politics and political dynamics on climate change is seen as being notoriously difficult to predict and more so to achieve.

But one thing does seem more than statistically feasible: With new advances in analytics and visualization, more data-driven insight on climate change and its continually unfolding effects on humanity is on tap in months and years to come.

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