The Many Faces of Climate Change

by Prabarna Ganguly

When we close our eyes and think of climate change, what do we see? Some of us might envision an expanding cloud of smog, cities drowning under water, and hurricanes speeding our way. Other, more seasoned climate enthusiasts, might reflect on the outward expanding spiral animation, one of the neatest graphs denoting increasing global temperatures from 1850-2016:

Climate Spiral (Courtesy Climate Lab Book)

Climate Spiral (Courtesy Climate Lab Book)

These are classic, perhaps too classic, representations of climate change. But what if that vision changed? What if I took a group of you to walk to the nearest park, draw a line on the ground, and picture that space covered by water in the next 100 years? Or told you that a group was using faith and spirituality to build momentum for climate justice? There are many forms of thought and visualization that can instigate personal and region-wide climate change action. Here are a few I got to learn about, at a panel discussion called Visualizing Climate: A Panel Bridging Art, Science and Policy, hosted by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Visualizing Change

Data visualization has become a critical medium through which the topic of climate change is distributed to the public. However, misinformation and misinterpretations of this form can affect unreliable communication regarding scientific evidence for climate change. For educators, there is a wide-variety of available information to be parsed out and disseminated to their audience. The question therefore remains: what is the most beneficial instruction method for educators?

Visual narratives

John Anderson, Education Director at the New England Aquarium, spoke about the Visualizing Change project, a toolkit aimed for educators, which uses visual narratives on climate change. The kit uses concepts from social and cognitive psychology to facilitate better interpretation and understanding of climate science. Educators can download slides of various topics for free, which come with a handy set of framed, annotated notes, with rationale and background. The idea, Anderson says, is to generate information with a purpose, which can help initiate systematic actions to mitigate climate change. Check out their website here.      

Days of Future Past: A walk with climate change

When founded in 1630, the city of Boston was 738 acres. Today, Boston covers approximately 57,363 acres. How did this happen?

Land reclamation

Significant amount of gravel, carried on horses and buggy was taken from areas such as Needham and used to fill in landmass. This quadrupled the edge of Boston in 260 years (Windsorities, think Crystal Bay).

So what is the issue?

It so happens that the 1630's Boston map looks freakishly similar to the predicted 2100 Boston map (using climate change and sea rise data). This is very different from what Boston looks like today. As speaker Catherine D’Ignazio, Assistant Professor of Data Visualization and Civic Media at Emerson College said, this would be a case of "the past becoming the future".

Boston coastline in 1630 (left) and predicted coastline in 2100 (right) (Metropolitan Planning Organization, MA. 2011)

Boston coastline in 1630 (left) and predicted coastline in 2100 (right) (Metropolitan Planning Organization, MA. 2011)

An artist and public storyteller, D'Ignazio wished Boston residents to reflect on the repercussion of this physical regression. So she devised Boston Coastline: Future Past, a ”walking data visualization" trip in 2015, where people walked along this "past" and "future" coastline of the city. Ladders were placed in certain sections, and guest speakers spoke from the expected water level mark, metaphorically leaving many participants under water.  

At once a performance art, silent protest, and an attempt at democratizing data, this event made visible the reversal scenario that would be witnessed by future generations if climate change action and cultural transformation does not enter the city's ethos.

An art book on the event can be found here.  

On Watery Grounds

What are some of usual engineering solutions for encroaching seas in landfilled areas such as Boston? Think hard, concrete structures such as dams, dikes and sea walls. But Mike Wilson, a landscape architect and doctoral candidate at the MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, wants to add a softer edge.

Wilson proposes that grand fort-like protection structures are not the sufficient solution to flooding situations. In his Master's thesis called Shifting Ground, he reimagines that softer engineering solutions such as wetland restoration are also necessary to attenuate effects of sea level rise.

Re-imagining the Boston Harbor, Wilson suggests a landscape that includes "climate parks", retention areas, elevated sea walls and outlying coastal defenses around the city (Fig 2). Harkening to a bygone era, his solutions include marshes and mudflats, much alike the Louisiana wetland restoration projects that sprung post-Katrina. Wilson also advocates for a storm-surge barrier between South and East Boston (similar to the Maeslantkering in the Netherlands. His warning: there is a tendency where work goes uncredited if it solves a problem that has yet to happen. It is therefore imperative to fight that behavior, and find ways to integrate ecology, hydrology, and infrastructure to create a protected landscape.  

Combining landscape architecture, climate change models, augmented recreation spaces, and a reinterpretation of urban areas, Wilson's project, if put into effect, will be a milestone in adapting Boston to the 21st century's projected rise in sea level.

A seaport barrier linking East and South Boston, and coastal defenses (Wilson, 2011)

A seaport barrier linking East and South Boston, and coastal defenses (Wilson, 2011)

Overview of his thesis presentation can be found on Scribd, while the thesis book can be purchased on Lulu.       

Humanity and Climate Change

According to Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, faith and spirituality are two concepts rarely placed next to each other in relation to climate change, but which have the capacity to generate substantial change in the way we connect with the planet. A Minister for Ecological Justice and key leader of the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (MAICCA), she spoke about the need for compassion, courage, and wisdom if communities are to take a leading role in action against climate change.

A key goal of the MAICCA is warning communities against the reactive nature of humans. Rev. White-Hammond expressed concern that humans no longer believe in preventative measures due to short-term reward seeking. At one point she commented, "I do not believe a Democrat or a Republican wants to wait till their suburbs go underwater to draft actionable policies". Their group therefore imagines, and is working towards cross-cultural religious and spiritual communities becoming stalwarts in the climate justice movement.

The framework of MAICCA is twofold. On one hand is the collective feeling that scientific work tends to diminish a sense of awe and humility. It is this very humility that is required to acknowledge that the natural world is alive, and can overpower us. Second, we are agents of our own suffering, and must use knowledge acquired by communities who have survived natural disasters due to a deep, maintained respect for nature. This is something the urbanites are failing to think of.   

A movement inspired by Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, one of their main campaigns is the Climate Justice Simulation. A diverse congregation of faiths and traditions are brought together, and told how a certain climactic event will affect various Boston area communities. Using a game-based format, these groups then work together to analyze possible actions and preparations as valuable responses to such an event.

All four speakers and their work remind us of the dire need for an interdisciplinary, holistic approach to mitigate the climate change crisis. Pragmatic planning using design ideas from fundamental science research and implementation by integrating civic issues are essential elements that must be fostered by thinking about the big picture. Do we protect assets or do we protect people? What are the moral consequences of inaction? What has the past taught us about human hubris? How does that inform our next steps to survive on Earth?

One way or another, these are questions we all must face, and answer, for ourselves.     


Nota Bene: Prabarna is a graduate student based in Boston. Her meet-cute with Windsor occurred due to a chance visit to a friend. Since then, she has explored Windsor with as much enthusiasm as a graduate student stipend can afford. With that said, some of her posts will be based on her experiences and knowledge on climate change received from events, work, and interviews from Boston.