Climate Change Time Machine

What will climate change look like? It's a harder question than you might think. The impacts may be massive, myriad, and happen long into the future, all depending on the path we choose. So how can we better visualize those impacts before they happen–when there is still time to act?

That's what researchers at the University of British Columbia are attempting to do: help citizens and decision makers visualize how climate decisions made today will change the way things look 10, 50, and 100 years from now.

Stephen Sheppard is professor of landscape architecture and forestry at UBC and is the lead investigator of the Local Climate Change Visioning Project. He says he wanted to boil complex climate science down to something that people could more easily relate to.

"People need to make sense of this huge overwhelming thing called climate change that affects virtually everything you can think of; so how on Earth do you deal with it? It struck me that the kinds of visualization tools that we are using in normal everyday planning could be a very effective tool to get climate information across to people."

His team is using a geographic information system and computer-simulation technology to create scientifically based images of how different climate-change policies will play out in the Lower Mainland. And there are plenty of issues to work with.

Will low-lying areas like Delta and Richmond be flooded if we do nothing to adapt? How will the water supply in the Lower Mainland be affected by 2100 under different climate scenarios? What will the snow pack on the North Shore mountains look like in 50 years?

Getting the public to understand these issues is a challenge. Although the implications of global warming are enormous, many people can't follow along when subjected to unvarnished climate science. For instance, what does a 3.5-degree global temperature increase this century mean to the average person? Most people want to know, "What will it look like in my community?"

Alison Shaw, a research associate and the project's manager, hopes their effort will help. "What we are trying to do is bridge the gap between global science and local action.…We want to bring this information down to a level that people will understand and test whether science-driven images in local places will motivate people to change certain behaviours or think about certain things they haven't thought about in the past."

Places like Delta are on the frontlines of those challenges. Aptly named, the city is largely built on the Fraser River delta, and many areas are either at or below sea level. The dike system to protect these areas is designed to handle a "200 year" storm, a tempest with a half-percent chance of hitting in any given year. However, this comfortable margin of safety assumes that weather patterns and sea levels will remain constant in the future. They won't.

Global warming is already under way, and the changes we are causing to the atmosphere may cause global sea levels to rise by more than a metre this century. Climate scientists are also predicting more frequent and intense winter storms, like the ones that lashed the Lower Mainland this winter. This one-two punch will create some compelling climate-change challenges never before dealt with by local governments such as Delta's.

UBC researchers want to help them meet this challenge by drawing them a picture. Poring through mountains of data from climate-change models, GIS systems, and regional socioeconomic projections, they created computer-generated graphics of what we can expect to experience in places like Delta and the North Shore, specifically, under different climate futures.

They are working with selected local residents to create images of places that people easily recognize, such as the North Shore mountains, under these different climate scenarios.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, communities will be presented with visions of how the future may unfold, and they will be offered choices to, hopefully, avoid the worst.

According to Shaw, "What we hope to do is take these visualizations out into those communities…to see whether these visualizations develop some kind of emotional response in people. We want to learn whether people's awareness will increase if they see these types of impacts in their own back yard or in places that they know intimately. Will this awareness change their behaviour? So we've set up a second phase of the project to test that."

In attempting to measure the visceral, usually uncharted territory for academia, Sheppard and his team are aiming beyond the more scientifically comfortable territory of reasoned arguments.

Has anyone ever tried this work before? "Not as comprehensively as we are trying to do it," Sheppard says. "We are learning an incredible amount just in generating the pictures.…It's been a very instructive process for everybody involved because no one sees the big picture; we all work on a piece of it. There's a sea-level expert, a farming expert, a wildlife expert, and its only when you start linking all these things up and joining up the dots that you say, 'Ahh…'; that can be quite profound."

The results so far are compelling. The images from their worst-case scenario in Delta show the dikes level with the sea during severe winter storms in 2100, and that is being conservative. Those images are based on less severe projections than the worst-case scenario of the latest report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been criticized by some scientists as having low-balled future climate impacts from greenhouse gases.

The more optimistic climate futures used by the UBC researchers assume that the effects of climate change are more manageable due to emission reductions and urban densification. "Our most positive future scenario is one that represents all kinds of social-political-economic-cultural changes that enable us to take action earlier in the century to mitigate greenhouse gases, while also adapting to the potential climate change," Shaw says. She adds, "This is the only scenario that stabilizes the climate by 2100.

"That future scenario involves changing the nature of development and the way we look at land-use planning entirely. We would move away from suburban development, where's there's a dependence on cars, particularly single-occupancy vehicles, to get us to where we need to go. We would instead focus on new styles of communities that are more high density and more complete, with nodal areas where people can go for entertainment, social activity, and groceries. These would be connected by sophisticated transit lines linking all the different areas in the Lower Mainland and interlinked with alternative-energy technologies such as solar, biogas, and wind. The Agriculture Land Reserve would also remain protected in its entirety to ensure local food security."

IT IS STILL early in the project, but the residents who have attended the workshops and seen the images seem supportive of the project. "So far, so good", says Marcy Sangret, environmental planner for the Corporation of Delta. "The people that have participated kept coming back to meetings. They are supportive of bringing their time into the process to make it better, and I'm not aware of anyone that doesn't support the study."

As far as the city planning department goes: "We are in the stage now where we are definitely onboard with the study and think they are going about it in a very scientifically credible way," Sangret says.

The project tries to help people grasp the more indirect impacts of our climate-altered future. "What we are finding is that people think about climate change and they think about temperature change," Shaw says. "They don't think about increased storm events or increased precipitation intensity or the effects that climate change may have on more vulnerable populations around the world."

Those implications go far beyond the local scale. "For instance, 50 percent of the world's population lives along coastlines," Shaw notes. "So what proportion of those coastlines will be affected by sea-level rise? How many of those people living along those coastlines are affected by increased weather events and increased hurricane events? With that increased vulnerability existing in other parts of the world, how is that going to impact us in the region? Will we be getting a huge amount of environmental refugees showing up on our shorelines?

"We want to evoke in people's thinking these potential secondary impacts of climate change. So between 2050 and 2100, in our worst-case scenario, we have assumed that the rest of the world is going to be more vulnerable to climate change than we will, and that we will be a desirable location. On our land-use map for Delta, we have incorporated environmental-refugee settlements." Shaw adds: "That has created a bit of a dialogue, for sure."

Although housing refugees may sound bizarre, it is important to realize that places like Bangladesh may see 30 million environmental refugees by the end of this century. Those people will have to go somewhere, and Canada is a likely destination for at least some of those displaced in our climate-altered future.

This project also tries to crack an old political nut. How can politicians allocate resources on issues that might not affect us for 50 or 100 years? Or, put more bluntly, how can decision makers be convinced to spend money to avoid future disasters that might not happen until long after they have left office?

According to Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, that problem is real but hopefully changing, due to our new global imperative. "I've been in politics a long time, so I've seen some politicians who only think about the next election.…I think that is particularly true of the senior levels of government. They don't plan out for 50 years, but they should be.…I think that is the wave of the future, that governments have to plan out these major shifts as far as they can using the science that is available."

Jackson is very supportive of the climate-visioning project and its potential to change political thinking. "A picture is worth a thousand words, and when you couple the words with a picture it is much more powerful than simply a document that is 50 pages long. So the picture being attached to the science is really a good idea."

She adds: "I think they are doing a tremendous job. It's a huge feather in the cap of UBC…the people here are really quite amazed, especially the younger people, because it's going to affect them much more than the older folks that won't be here to see the expected impacts."

Jackson is also enthusiastic about the potential for replicating this work in other communities around the world. "I know some of the people in the U.S. are getting jumpy about what is going to happen to Florida and elsewhere in the world," Jackson says. "I think it would really be wonderful to be able to use this as a tool to educate other countries and other politicians across the world as to what could possibly happen to their particular area."

According to Shaw, there is already worldwide interest in the study, but replicating it elsewhere would be a major effort and may be impossible in areas with limited resources. "The potential exists as long as the data exists. This is an immensely data-driven research project that we've undertaken. So we are using the best available science that exists at the local and regional level, and we are trying to integrate those into our story lines of alternative climate futures."

The scale of this effort is also daunting. Researchers in B.C. have involved virtually all levels of government, including the B.C. Environment Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture, Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and the Corporation of Delta and District of North Vancouver.

The real test of this ambitious effort is whether or not it can encourage people to make choices that will avoid, rather than just cope with, the worst of climate change. Being able to see into the future helped even Ebenezer Scrooge change his ways. Maybe we are not beyond hope either.

This Piece ran in the Georgia Straight on April 19th, 2007

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