Four Degrees Warmer: An Interactive Map

by Alex Aylett

Unless we act now, our children will live in a significantly warmer world. To get an idea of what the cost of inaction means for future generations, the climate research team at the United Kingdom's Met Office Hadley Centre released an impressive interactive map of what a warmer world will look like. The dollar-store summary is that a world at +4°C/7°F isn't pretty.

Recently, the map was the centerpiece of U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband's press conference to call attention to the pressing need for us to get something significant out of the Copenhagen negotiations.

[Map above too small? Click here to launch full screen version]

The online map provides a simple interface to explore the what and the where of climate change impacts: forest fires, crops failures, water availability, sea level rise, marine ecosystems, drought, permafrost, cyclones, and extreme temperatures. Zoom in to a location of interest, and click on a color-coded circle to find a brief description of regional impacts. A second click will open up a separate page with a more detailed summary of the scientific papers on that theme.

Where the map hits hardest is its ability to show all these multiple threats at the same time, many intersecting simultaneously on the same regions. For example, Sub Saharan Africa will be hit by droughts, crop failures, forest fires and suffer from a decrease in overall water availability. (1.5 billion people will live there by 2050.) North America will experience heatwaves, drought, crop failures, cyclone related damages, and fisheries collapse. The world's production of staple grains will decrease by 40 percent, thawing permafrost will destabilize settlements in the far north, and heatwaves (some 10°C hotter than usual) will scorch North American and European cities.

Imagining a world (or your particular city or country) under these conditions is a frightening thought experiment.

Earlier this fall, Google released a series of Google Earth tours along similar lines. They show a real time simulation of how temperature and precipitation changes will spread unevenly across the globe over the next 90 years. Both maps are based on similar underlying climate change models provided by the IPCC. The unsettling thing is that each new report coming out points to the fact that the IPCC estimates to date have been far too conservative. While the Google Earth simulations put a +4°C/7°F rise at the 2100 mark, updated information used by the Hadley Centre puts it as closer to 2060.

As sense of urgency surrounds both these maps. Each is trying to make the most of their ability to bridge the often cited gap between the scientific community and the politicians (and the populations that elect them) who are in a position to create policy. By making our best scientific understanding of the future visible, these maps may be one more powerful motivator for social and political action. In the short term, they offer lots for educators, politicians, planners and the public to work with going into the Copenhagen negotiations.

In the long term, I can't help wondering what other effects the maps might have. Benedict Anderson makes a brilliant argument about the national newspaper: by pulling together information from across a country in a particular way, national newspapers made it possible for individuals to imagine connections with people they would never meet and places they would never visit. It allowed them to see themselves as part of a national community.

As these types of high-tech, global maps become an increasingly common part of all of our lives, what types of imagined communities are they going to allow us to create? What world changing types of political action will they make possible? And will they come soon enough?

Alex Aylett is a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia studying the politics behind municipal climate change policy. He is currently a Trudeau Scholar and has worked as a consultant and researcher for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the International Centre for Sustainable Cities. His articles have appeared in The Tyee, THIS magazine, the Montreal Gazette and ReNew Canada magazine. He splits his time between Durban (South Africa), Portland (Oregon) and Vancouver (BC). You can read his blog here.

This article originally appeared on Worldchanging on 26 October 2009.