How fast will the Earth heat up? The new global mapping tool has answers
An initiative called Probable Futures hopes its interactive maps showing how fast the Earth could heat will lead citizens and countries to question how climate change is transforming their world – a first step in the fight against adaptation. and the prevention of increasingly difficult conditions.
Spencer Glendon, 52, founder of Probable Futures and a senior fellow at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, was research director for investment manager Wellington Management. He has always been drawn to issues that could transform financial markets if only people paid attention.
Modern economics is based on a simple and, until recently, correct assumption that the global climate is stable. The smartest way to deal with Earth’s climate in any risk assessment going back to the origin of risk assessments was to ignore it. But a changing climate can no longer be ignored, and professionals of all stripes lack the tools to help them think through the implications, Glendon said.
When the past was a more useful indicator of the future, tools like spreadsheets were all needed to extrapolate most people, Glendon said. Climate change requires an understanding of the natural systems disrupted by greenhouse gas pollution. The Earth has warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius since industrialization, hotter than it has been in 125,000 years.
“The stable climate was an assumption we took for granted,” he said. “Everything else was built on that assumption. For 12,000 years the climate was essentially stable, so we could look back at the actuarial data and predict the future.”
What everyone needs a lot more, he said, are maps.
Working with experts at the Woodwell Center, Probable Futures has created a global mapping tool that shows increasing risks at multiple levels of temperature change. Two levels of warming of 0.5 degree C and 1 degree C above pre-industrial temperatures already exist in the past. The likely future scenarios escalate in half-degree increments up to degrees Celsius, a catastrophic amount that is also a common estimate of the expected warming by 2100 if emissions do not stop. Scalable maps for precipitation and drought are in preparation. The interactive maps have been released with an in-depth introduction to climate science and Earth system modeling, to explain how the tools work.
Their approach allows users, who can range from financiers to educators, to better understand what happens when natural systems are under pressure. For example, maps show that if temperatures rise 2.5 degrees C, much of the mountainous Sierra Nevada region of California can go from one day above 32 degrees C (90 degrees F) to a month.
Warmer temperatures don’t respect any boundaries, but people-protection policies do. This creates the potential for big disparities in how neighbors cope with the same heat. Neighboring countries that experience similar changes but live under different governments may face different levels of risk. The annual number of nights in Israel not exceeding 20 degrees Celsius will also engulf Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Higher altitudes protect Lebanon for a while. The Middle East, North Africa, and South and West Asia will experience much more dangerous warming than colder and richer Europe.
Millions of people are just starting to understand climate change, said Alison Smart, executive director of the group. “We envision Probable Futures as being the first stop sort of like, to build that foundation and help them understand the scope, scale, urgency and, really, the terms that Earth defines for how we can live. “
Increasingly, businesses and investors need such data. A California climate risk advisory group released a report on Monday that recommends the state ensure everyone has access to climate data and technical support to use it. The Probable Futures tool could help, said co-author Alicia Seiger, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University.
As governments and businesses build infrastructure for warmer periods, everyone needs to know what the conditions may be, and mapping tools can increasingly be seen as necessary public infrastructure. Probable Futures plans to make parts of its tool publicly available so that people and organizations can customize the cards.
“The need for technical assistance is enormous,” Seiger said. “This level of information may be sufficient for the type of decision-making needed.”