Climate change is often thought of as a vaguely lengthy, inevitable process: a gloomy thundercloud over our heads that we willfully ignore – whether we simply don’t believe in it, or feel overwhelmed and powerless to change it.
To many people, climate change is the delayed effect of harmful environments that existed at least a century ago. Or it is a sorrowful but helpless Facebook post about melting ice caps, dying polar bears, and rising sea levels. In reality, climate change is so much more.
Climate change is something we must fight in our lifetime, before things become irreversible. But why don't most people see it as an urgent matter? Because they just don't have the full picture. We're here to fix that.
We focus on three key misconceptions:
1. Climate change is slow. The damage has been done over centuries, and it will unfold gradually over centuries to come. It won’t affect us right now, so it’s not an issue that requires drastic and urgent action.
2. Climate change will be bad, but the world will largely continue as before.
3. Climate change is primarily an issue of sea level rise. If you don’t live on the coast, that won’t affect you.
Challenging Misunderstanding #1:
"Climate change is slow. The damage has been done over centuries, and it will unfold gradually over centuries to come. It won’t affect us right now, so it’s not an issue that requires drastic and urgent action."
Most people think climate change was caused by the industrial revolution and its accumulated emissions over the course of hundreds of years. While that story is technically true, what most people don’t realize is that the devastation climate change will bring is largely the result of what happened in a single generation.
85% of carbon emitted over the course of human history was released into the atmosphere after World War II; 50% of the carbon emitted in human history was released in the last thirty years alone. Most people think that climate change is something that’s been building up over generations, for hundreds of years. In truth, the vast majority of the damage was done while our parents have been alive.
Graphs like this are fairly common, and we'd be surprised if you'd never see one before. However, what might not be immediately apparent is the urgency of the moment we live in right now. For the record, two degrees of warming is what the island nations of the world would consider "genocidal" levels of damage. The California wildfires, Midwest flooding, and Southwest droughts are only the beginning of what we can expect in the decades to come in a world 2 degrees warmer. In every conceivable scenario, we're on track to hit 2 degrees of warming within the next couple of decades.
Using this graph's same data we can compare total emissions before 1989, emissions in the last 30 years, and projected emissions over the next 30 years in the medium scenario.
As this comparison makes strikingly clear, carbon emisisons over the next 30 years will determine the fate of human life on this planet. If we aggressively divest from carbon now, it's not too late to keep warming to around 2 degrees. If you've been unsure about whether or not you should be freaking out about this, waiting so as not to be unneccesarily worried about a situation that doesn't require it yet, now is the time. You should be worried.
Think of emitting carbon as eating unhealthily and not exercising. We all know it's not great for our health, but the effects might not be immediately apparent. However, when your doctor says you won't live to meet your grandchildren if you don't change your lifestyle, and in fact you've had several mini-strokes over the past couple of months, you'd start eating vegetables and going to the gym that very day. That's the point we're at right now with climate. This is your wake up call, and we can't afford to wait any longer.
Challenging Misunderstanding #2:
"Climate change will be bad, but the world will largely continue as before."
Climate change has direct and powerful consequences that will transform life as we know it, and this goes beyond just environmental changes. Many don't realize that climage change is also a threat to political stability.
For example, consider climate refugees, people who are displaced from their homes due to severe environmental disruption. The effects of climate change are expected to drastically increase the number of climate refugees as quickly as within the next 40 years. We are currently sitting at 25 million climate refugees. Before half a century is up, we can expect that number to increase to anywhere between 200 million and 1 billion climate refugees.
Current number of climate refugees: 25 million
Most cited projected number of climate refugees by 2050: 200 million
Peak projected number of climate refugees by 2050: 1 billion
1 billion people is the current combined population of North and South America, so it's likely that this estimate is much higher than we will actually see in 2050. However, when we consider the impact that one million Syrian refugees have had on European politics and the xenophobic pushback against migrants that’s been seen continent-wide (from a civil war exacerbated by climate-induced agricultural stress, for the record), the prospect of at least 200 million additional climate refugees should be a terrifying prospect for anyone concerned about liberal democracy. While it's true that many climate refugees will choose to migrate within their country rather than leave for a new one, the sheer scale of worldwide displacement that we can expect to see is simply unprecedented.
Climate change is a force to be reckoned with. We cannot ignore or underestimate it any longer.
Challenging Misunderstanding #3:
"Climate change is primarily an issue of sea level rise. If you don’t live on the coast, that won’t affect you."
While sea level rising alone will displace tens of millions, the effects of climate change will extend far beyond the coasts. At the same time that serious droughts will likely plague much of the American southwest (let’s not forget that much of American produce is grown in California), a warming climate will simultaneously bring devastating flooding. Warmer air is able to hold more water, so while droughts will parch the soil in some regions, unusually heavy rainfall will cause disastrous floods in others. Consider the following chart, which links warmer temperatures with a greater likelihood of extreme precipitation events.
Likelihood of Extreme Precipitation Event
Our current climate has us 1°C above pre-industrial levels. With just one additional degree of warming, storms that would have appeared once every twenty years in our current climate - like Hurricane Sandy, or the floods that devastated the Midwest last month - will now appear 50% more frequently. Beyond two degrees, the frequency of these extreme events will only continue to increase. Homes built outside of historical floodplains will no longer be safe, nor will low lying farmland or cities built near major rivers. Hurricane Harvey and the current flooding of the Midwest are only the beginning of what we can expect as our planet gets warmer.
Climate change has arrived. It is no longer a question of whether or not climate change will utterly disrupt human life as we know it, it is a question of in what way, and to what degree.
What can be done? At this point, the only course of action that stands a realistic chance of averting complete disaster is legislation mandating rapid decarbonization of the economy and our way of life.
It’s tempting to think that if we only shopped at the right eco-friendly stores, only bought new shoes made with 100% recycled plastic, brought our reusable canvas bags to the grocery store, and tried to take shorter showers that we’d be doing our part to save the planet. At this point however, focusing on individual action is a red herring. While meaningful on principle, our individual actions will have exactly zero impact without systemic change. Everything and everyone on this planet needs to wean themselves off of carbon and prepare for the world to come, from fashion brands who overproduce and burn their leftover items, to poorly insulated buildings that waste energy, to agricultural companies that depend on dwindling groundwater resources. People will need to act against their own interests for the collective good, and that’s going to hurt. Unless there is forceful legislation and strong public demand for this process of decarbonization, it simply will not happen.
Some closing thoughts: this piece has thus far been very gloomy; that is intentional. We are not here to make you feel better about the climate, we are here to communicate the situation as we understand it. However, we will leave you with one hopeful thought. If we did most of this damage in the last thirty years, it is our foot on the proverbial gas pedal accelerating this car off the climate cliff. It is not a pre-ordained fact that we will continue to emit carbon in the way that we have been doing, and we are not suffering the consequences of our ancestor’s mistakes.
This is fully in our control. If it is in our power to continue this damage, it is equally in our power to stop it.
Climate change is often thought of as a vaguely lengthy, inevitable process: a gloomy thundercloud over our heads that we willfully ignore – whether we simply don’t believe in it, or feel overwhelmed and powerless to change it. Additionally, conversation about climate change often drops off after melting ice caps, dying polar bears, and rising sea levels. While these are valid concerns, they are also not representative of the true dangers we face. A large part of this problem, we believe, is that most people simply do not understand the basics of climate change: what is happening? What is causing the changes we see? What kind of action is needed to stop it?
Related Work & Methodology
Because our visualization focused on re-shaping narrative rather than direct data analysis, our methodology was fairly simple. The bulk of our analysis comes from the article The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells and a variety of interviews he did, in which he outlines the three primary misunderstandings people have about climate change and highlights different studies which illuminate these misunderstandings. Some of the statistics we found in his article we supported with external data (ex. The data about carbon emissions came from here, and future carbon projections came from here), but in others we simply cite the same source he does (ex. 200 million projected climate migrants in 2050 comes from here). Because this is an issue in which public understanding of basic facts is the primary issue rather than sophisticated analysis, we focused instead on building visualizations that could convey those truths to lay audiences.
For all of our visualizations, our main concern was whether or not it clearly conveyed an important but misunderstood aspect of climate change. Ideally, we wanted to scare people into caring about climate change; shock value is very effective for communication. As a result, many of our visualizations ended up being very simple: carbon emission lines go up, this box is far larger than that box, the number of dots representing migrants gets a lot bigger, etc. Bigger is badder. We felt that keeping our designs simple and punchy was was the best way to make sure our message got across clearly to an audience of any background.
Our visualizations were all built in D3 and hosted on Github pages. Because our data was fairly simple, we did not experience any performance issues or need to use more sophisticated data loading. Given that our approach was narrative heavy, we focused on writing an essay with supporting visualizations, rather than designing visualizations with supporting captions.
Overall, we feel that our message was understood well by most people who saw our visualization. We did note that because it was so text-heavy, many people asked us to skip to the charts, and it might have been good to try and minimize text more than we did. While people did notice the lack of interactivity, they did note the importance of the written content. Some made comments on how they didn’t realize climate change was so serious, indicating an effective narrative, which was our goal. Our narrative delivered an effective and powerful message, and hopefully opened readers up to more environmentally conscious thinking.
If we were to continue this project, we think it would be helpful to expand our section on the ways in which climate change will affect people away from the coasts. One of the main issues with trying to pass climate change legislation is that people don’t see the ways in which failing to act will directly harm them, and as a consequence don’t see the need to pay the cost of shrinking their carbon footprint.
Furthermore, we might expand this project by giving people more specific plans of action. While we do discuss in the conclusion that the most effective thing we can do for our planet is support decarbonization policies, perhaps we could provide readers with links to resources where they can learn more about said policies, and who supports them. Directly bridging readers to a more politically active state might be the most effective way to induce the change we want to see.
Lastly, we would add more visualizations - particularly interactives. With so much written content in an age where people have been trained to crave instant gratification, many readers went straight to the visualizations. It would be helpful to make sure that the visualizations emphasize all the points we make while still creating a powerful narrative on their own.