What does climate change look like?

People often have a hard time understanding what climate change looks like. In conversations on the topic, I am often asked things like “is it true that this will be the coast soon?” standing a few miles inland, and “will the winters be hotter?” which sounds like a pretty good thing in many places.

And unfortunately I, along with most people in the climate change field, am unable to give anything like a satisfactory answer. I say things like, “well, estimates of likely water level changes are between .2 to 2 feet in the next century” and “weather will probably be more extreme but it depends on lots of factors.” I am a little embarrassed to give these types of answers as in most areas of life I never take “it depends” as good enough.

This is a major problem for building support of action on climate change. While the IPPC presents plenty of big picture information, about, say increased global average temperature increases, increased spread of flu, and threats to global crop security, most people sitting in their living room have a hard time understanding what will be different about their life as a result of climate change 50 years from now. Unfortunately too, the dramatic pictures of melting ice-caps and retreating rivers, dramatic floods, and heat related deaths as a result of climate change occur in the more obscure and removed parts of the world, out of the lives of the average person in a developed country.

For some people, this uncertainty and removed-ness still presents a convincing case for action. But for many, sacrificing now to prevent climate change, as described in this way, makes little sense.

Fortunately, scientists across the world are working hard to better describe the effects of climate change today and in the future so that weary people can really understand what climate change looks like and understand why it is so important to prevent and mitigate it. Last week two very important reports came out that begin to paint a better picture of climate change in the USA and the UK.

The US Global Change Research Program released a groundbreaking report on the likely effects of climate change under both high and low-carbon scenarios in the United States. Besides describing the macro-stuff that we’re already aware of, like that for example “climate change is unequivocal and primarily human-induced”, it also shows in detail the way that it threatens the water, crop, and livestock resources of every American. It hits home with details, for example, of the end of domestically-produced maple syrup (something that will make anyone who’s had Vermont maple syrup re-imagine breakfast).

The UK Climate Impacts Programme also released an update to its 2007 “Climate of the UK and recent trends” report. Although it takes a more meteorologically focused approach, it provides extraordinarily detailed maps of near-term changes in the weather across the UK. It shows the extreme variation between regions and highlights the point that there will be winners and losers.

Both reports are worth a browse. They provide unprecedented micro-level information about what exactly climate change looks like. It’s one huge step in the right direction.