Chapter 8: Our Possible Future(s): Data Visualizations And Climate Models As Sense-making Tools

VISUALIZATIONS OF DATA ARE NOW INDISPENSABLE TOOLS FOR SCIENTISTS AND EVERYDAY FOLK TO COMPREHEND COMPLEX AND GLOBALLY DISTRIBUTED PROCESSES. You’ve seen such visualizations in the forms of charts, graphs, maps, and tables, some of which are animated or interactive. It’s hardly possible for students to grasp what is happening with the climate now unless they are given opportunities to study these representations, use them as lenses to see phenomena differently, and ask new questions about the world. Turning to the future(s), to understand what might be happening over the next few decades, we must rely on a specific kind of visualization—the output from global climate models. When scientists forecast future trends for sea level rise or species extinctions, they are using data from the past and present, as well as mathematical equations that describe how different variables are related to one another and to downstream outcomes that determine the livability of the planet.

Helping students deal with complex visualizations

The visualization below (Fast-growing cities face worse climate risks) is now typical of CC related representations—eye-catching and incorporating several different kinds of data. Students might note the different cities and also parts of the world; some might notice that the city “bubbles” are different sizes. The y-axis looks like population growth (this is in per cent, but per cent of what?) and the x-axis is less-to-more vulnerable (so they’ll need to go to the original paper to get clarification on how that is measured). Think about the advice given in the book chapter about helping students make sense of representations like this. How might you apply the steps below to this example?

5-part strategy for helping students make sense of complex visualizations

  • (1) Provide (or have students seek out) the context for the visualization (e.g., how were data collected, by whom),
  • (2) Support students’ decoding of elements within the visualization (what they represent, including the title),
  • (3) Help students identify and make meaning of the patterns, asking their own questions and seeking answers,
  • (4) Figure out with them how these trends matter in the world and, if so, to whom, and
  • (5) Prompt students to ask what they want to know more about.

Here are additional scaffolds to help students do this work (because these are scaffolds, they are supposed to be temporary and gradually withdrawn over the course of the school year):

  • Reduce the overwhelming amount of information shown simultaneously, perhaps by covering up parts of the visualization
  • Give students time to think before having to talk with peers about what is happening
  • Start conversations off with basic interpretations of the viz that allows all students a “foothold” in the more complex conversations that follow
  • Offer sentence frames for how to express what they think they can claim or how to use the data as evidence
  • Model your own thinking publicly about what you might pay attention to or questions you might ask yourself as you try to make sense of the visualization.
  • Provide an exit ticket question that helps them reflect on their experience and what they need to get better at

Dynamic models to experiment with

What this is

En-ROADS is a freely-available online simulator that provides policymakers, educators, businesses, the media, and the public with the ability to test and explore cross-sector climate solutions.

Why it can help students

This is a type of modeling that students can do, in which they test out theories about how different types of interventions can affect global temperatures, carbon dioxide emissions, or other measures. So they can select both inputs and outputs and think together about systems change.

Climate Lab Book has lots of visualizations for use by students or for incorporation into curriculum. NASA has a Scientific Visualization Studio with a section called Climate Essentials. CarbonBrief has a set of pages on How Do Climate Models Work. AnyChart is another source.

In the IPCC report Worlds Apart: A Story of Three Possible Warmer Worlds, authors use an infographic style to show us three different futures we could face depending on when we take action, and if we take action at the right scale. Notice in the graphic below how authors make it clear that the possible worlds will begin to diverge in the 2020’s, meaning the choices we make now are setting us on a path already.

The report sums up “what matters”—starting now.

  • Choosing an early, effective action world is necessary, desirable and achievable
  • Every action matters
  • Every bit of warming matters
  • Every year matters
  • Every choice matters

Global climate models and their relationship with socio-cultural trends

What this is

Below is a climate model, projecting 5 different kinds of futures. The projections are based not just on geophysical science data, but also on possible social, cultural, economic, governance and technological trends. These are Shared Socioeconomic Pathways: SSPs.

Why this matters for your teaching

These kinds of projections should interest your professional peers teaching social studies. You could sit down together and see if there is any cross-curricular work you can do with these five very different futures. SSP1, the green line in the graph, corresponds with description #1 below. I included all the text, just so you could more easily see the subtleties in how these differ, and how dangerous it would be, for example to elect authoritarian leaders or those who dismiss the threats of climate change.

The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: An overview

  1. SSP1  Sustainability – Taking the Green Road (Low challenges to mitigation and adaptation). The world shifts gradually, but pervasively, toward a more sustainable path, emphasizing more inclusive development that respects perceived environmental boundaries. Management of the global commons slowly improves, educational and health investments accelerate the demographic transition, and the emphasis on economic growth shifts toward a broader emphasis on human well-being. Driven by an increasing commitment to achieving development goals, inequality is reduced both across and within countries. Consumption is oriented toward low material growth and lower resource and energy intensity.
  2. SSP2  Middle of the Road (Medium challenges to mitigation and adaptation) The world follows a path in which social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns. Development and income growth proceeds unevenly, with some countries making relatively good progress while others fall short of expectations. Global and national institutions work toward but make slow progress in achieving sustainable development goals. Environmental systems experience degradation, although there are some improvements and overall the intensity of resource and energy use declines. Global population growth is moderate and levels off in the second half of the century. Income inequality persists or improves only slowly and challenges to reducing vulnerability to societal and environmental changes remain.
  3. SSP3  Regional Rivalry – A Rocky Road (High challenges to mitigation and adaptation)
    A resurgent nationalism, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts push countries to increasingly focus on domestic or, at most, regional issues. Policies shift over time to become increasingly oriented toward national and regional security issues. Countries focus on achieving energy and food security goals within their own regions at the expense of broader-based development. Investments in education and technological development decline. Economic development is slow, consumption is material-intensive, and inequalities persist or worsen over time. Population growth is low in industrialized and high in developing countries. A low international priority for addressing environmental concerns leads to strong environmental degradation in some regions.
  4. SSP4  Inequality – A Road Divided (Low challenges to mitigation, high challenges to adaptation)
    Highly unequal investments in human capital, combined with increasing disparities in economic opportunity and political power, lead to increasing inequalities and stratification both across and within countries. Over time, a gap widens between an internationally-connected society that contributes to knowledge- and capital-intensive sectors of the global economy, and a fragmented collection of lower-income, poorly educated societies that work in a labor intensive, low-tech economy. Social cohesion degrades and conflict and unrest become increasingly common. Technology development is high in the high-tech economy and sectors. The globally connected energy sector diversifies, with investments in both carbon-intensive fuels like coal and unconventional oil, but also low-carbon energy sources. Environmental policies focus on local issues around middle and high income areas.
  5. SSP5  Fossil-fueled Development – Taking the Highway (High challenges to mitigation, low challenges to adaptation)
    This world places increasing faith in competitive markets, innovation and participatory societies to produce rapid technological progress and development of human capital as the path to sustainable development. Global markets are increasingly integrated. There are also strong investments in health, education, and institutions to enhance human and social capital. At the same time, the push for economic and social development is coupled with the exploitation of abundant fossil fuel resources and the adoption of resource and energy intensive lifestyles around the world. All these factors lead to rapid growth of the global economy, while global population peaks and declines in the 21st century. Local environmental problems like air pollution are successfully managed. There is faith in the ability to effectively manage social and ecological systems, including by geo-engineering if necessary.

The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: An overview. Global Environmental Change 42 (2017) 153–168, Keywan Riahi et al.

A quote to remind us that all the numbers in these models often reflect real consequences, events that mean something to us and to future generations.

We have colonized the future. In wealthy countries we have treated it like a distant colonial outpost where we can freely dump environmental damage and technological risk, as if there was nobody there.

 How to be a good ancestor by Roman Krznaric

D Beltra Indonesian Rainforest

Blog at