Resources Article

The New Cartography of Climate Change

Dec 1, 2008 | Shalini Vajjhala, Janet Nackoney

Building effective climate policy in the years ahead will require the ability to predict and manage anticipated climate impacts on fundamental aspects of our world, including our food, health, land, livelihood, and water systems. In this new landscape, spatial data are used as inputs to complex models and studies aimed at predicting how, where, and to what extent our climate is changing.

In “The New Cartography of Climate Change,” RFF Fellow Shalini Vajjhala and Janet Nackoney, RFF’s GIS consultant, take a closer look at how digital maps help scientists and policymakers visualize results of their analyses.

“Maps can help distill and communicate the results of studies ranging from projections of temperature and precipitation shifts to the impacts of sea-level rise, and are being used both in and beyond the scientific communities that have developed them,” the authors write.

But before maps can become a successful, universal communication tool, according to the authors, users must develop “map literacy,” the ability to carefully consider map elements like scale, scenario, and baseline, which pose new challenges for both cartographers and citizens. Moreover, Vajjhala and Nackoney caution, “… we need to remind ourselves that maps are limited by the quality and accuracy of the underlying studies and data they represent. The necessary simplifications that are often an implicit part of making maps can obscure the uncertainty surrounding many studies and cloud the ways in which different maps are interpreted, compared, and combined.”

As hurdles to building greater public understanding of climate research are overcome, the authors say, maps will undoubtedly play a crucial role in making sound climate decisions–locally and globally.

“With greater map literacy, we can develop a common understanding of the problem and further harness the power of maps to communicate the ideas that shape the many lenses through which we view both climate science and policy.”