As an environmentalist working in a general design consultancy, I’m constantly looking for ways to talk about climate change. In my day to day reality, climate change is just one of many issues: we tend to look at the immediate problems in front of our face (healthcare, education, the latest technology, etc.).
For CIID’s 10 Year Anniversary I put together a short talk, an attempt to communicate climate change in a way that 1) doesn’t mention the future affects at all, but instead focuses on the small changes we’re already seeing today and 2) doesn’t talk about GHG emissions, or causes of climate change, or any of the technical details.
I wanted to highlight the simplicity of the crisis unfolding: changes to the underlying physical structure of our world that will affect every system on which we depend.
I began the talk by asking everyone to put on their ‘future glasses’ and peer into the future with me. The anniversary had been full of inspiring ideas and projects—I asked my audience to reflect on the future we were building and look at it through three key lenses:
3 Lenses of Physical Change
While there are certainly nuances and much complexity in the way climate change is unfolding, I wanted to simplify the discussion to three physical changes: heat, rain, and seas. I see these as the base changes, changes that will ripple through ecosystems, our food supply chains, our health vectors, and damage on our infrastructure.
Globally, average temperature is already 1°C hotter than in the 1800’s, pre industrialization. In February and March of 2016, it was 1.38°C hotter. July was the hottest month ever recorded and, in fact, the past 14 months have been hottest version of that month ever recorded (The Guardian, NASA).
Heat is a key regulator in the timing of our biological systems, for flowering, mating, migration, etc. And the increase in heat is shifting the natural patterns of many species. For example, the Pied Flycatcher, a small European bird, is migrating earlier in the spring to Africa, however it hasn’t shifted it’s migration enough to match the shift in it’s main food source, caterpillars which are peaking even earlier. The Pied Flycatcher is now down to 10% of its former population (EU Research & Innovation).
Heat is also affecting our human systems. I just want to share one example: in the last decade, the susceptibility of the world’s economic network to heat stress, which causes workers to tire quickly, has doubled. (Potsdam Institute for Climate Research).
Heat is supercharging our hydrologic cycles: evaporating larger quantities of water and gathering larger quantities of atmospheric water together in clouds. All of this is causing increasingly extreme precipitation patterns.
The supercharged hydraulic cycle is making dry places drier, and wet places wetter. Places like eastern North and South America, northern Europe, and northern and central Asia are becoming significantly wetter, while places in Sahel, southern Africa, the Mediterranean, and southern Asia are significantly drier.
Copenhagen is one of the places becoming wetter. In 2011, Copenhagen suffered over $1 billion in damage to infrastructure from too much precipitation. The city sees this as their biggest adaptation issue and is investing heavily in blue green infrastructure to better manage storm water (Forbes).
On the other side, climate-induced draught is exacerbating agriculture systems. In California, entire communities no longer have running water at home. And in Syria, the 2009 drought was one of the stressors of the current civil war (PNAS).
Just like our atmosphere, our bodies of water are also absorbing heat and, because of the heat capacity of water, they’ve actually absorbed about 20 times the heat that our atmospheres have. Oceans have warmed by 0.36-0.52°C over the past 40 years (Climate News Network).
Not only is this heat changing the chemical composition of our seas, making them more acidic, but heat building up in the poles is melting ice and glaciers. Over the past century, global mean sea level has risen 10-20 cm (National Geographic). This spring, it was reported that five islands in the Solomon Archipelago have now completely disappeared, with residents having to relocate The Guardian). Forty percent of humanity lives within 100km of a coast.
We are also seeing the same rapid changes in ocean ecosystems as we are seeing in terrestrial ecosystems. This summer, devastating coral bleaching hit 55% of the world’s coral, killing entire underwater habitats (The Guardian).
Despite this stream of ominous statistics, I wanted to stay away from apocalyptic predictions. The slow pace of climate change means that we have a (albeit shorter and shorter) window to adapt.
Yes, we are already starting to see major shifts and yes, there will be further death and destruction as climate change continues to unfold, but there is uncertainty as well. And there’s hope in that uncertainty; possibilities for us to explore and design a smarter future. I am incredibly inspired by Rebecca Solnit:
“The future is dark, with a darkness as much as the womb as the grave.”
— Rebecca Solnit
As designers, we get to make the future, to bring our ideas into the light. As we design new services and systems, it’s critical that we think about how our designs and ideas exist (and affect) a world with extreme heat, rain, and rising seas.
A Few Thoughts
I was a little surprised at how un-responsive my audience was. The only people who talked to me afterward were already deeply interested in climate change. This talk wasn’t successful at changing the conversation. I still haven’t found a way that motivates people to care without either not talking about climate (i.e. talking about energy or asthma), or sounding apocalyptic. So still more work ahead to keep experimenting…