Obama Turns to Web to Illustrate the Effects of a Changing Climate
President Obama wants Americans to see how climate change could deluge or destroy their own backyards — and to make it as easy as opening a web-based app. As part of an effort to make the public see global warming as a tangible and immediate problem, the White House on Wednesday inaugurated a website, climate.data.gov, aimed at turning scientific data about projected droughts and wildfires and the rise in sea levels into eye-catching digital presentations that can be mapped using simple software apps. The project is the brainchild of Mr. Obama’s counselor, John D. Podesta, and the White House science adviser, John P. Holdren.
The effort comes as Mr. Obama prepares to announce a set of aggressive climate change regulations aimed at limiting emissions from coal-fired plants. Although a poll by the Pew Research Center last October found that 67 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, a Pew poll in January showed that Americans ranked global warming as 19th on a list of 20 issues for Congress and the president.
Mr. Podesta has taken on the uphill task of building a political case for the climate rules, both by defusing the opposition and by trying to create an urgent sense among Americans that they are necessary. The website is the latest step in that strategy.
“Localizing this information gives a sense of how this affects people and spurs action,” Mr. Podesta told a small group of reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “If you’re thinking about this from the perspective of how your local community will be affected, it’s likely to change that question of salience.”
Initially, the website will serve mostly as a clearinghouse for climate science data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States Geological Survey, the Defense Department and NASA. The first batch of data will focus on coastal flooding and the rise in sea levels.
Most users will not be able to do much yet on their own. Instead, NASA and NOAA will call on researchers and private companies to create software simulations illustrating the impact of rising sea levels.
Some major software and mapping companies have already expressed interest in using the climate data. Chief among them are Google and Esri, a Redlands, Calif., company that supplies mapping and geographic information systems software to federal agencies, including the C.I.A., and city and local governments. Company executives say they anticipate a strong interest in the data. “There’s a market for this,” said Jack Dangermond, Esri’s chief executive, who joined Mr. Podesta and Mr. Holdren at the White House. “We’re excited to use it. Reading climate data in real time is unusual.”
Esri’s mapping programs already layer census and income data on top of geographical data. The company has used government data on the projected rise in sea levels to create an interactive map of what will happen, for example, should a hurricane hit the town of Gloucester, Mass. The digital map shows how flooding will affect specific buildings, roads, houses, schools, and low-income and older residents.
White House officials hope that if city planners and homeowners around the country see such vivid digital projections of the impact of climate change in their backyards, it could melt political resistance to climate policy and create a new impetus for action. In 2012 as North Carolina was creating a development plan, the state legislature voted to disregard scientific projections that climate change would cause rising sea levels.
“If people in North Carolina had had this initiative, that decision would have been less likely,” Mr. Holdren told reporters at the White House.
Google also hopes to combine its mapping technology with the government climate data. “What if we could make information about sea-level rise, extreme heat and drought as simple to digest and interactive as using Google Maps to get directions?” said Rebecca Moore, the engineering manager of Google Earth, who was also at the White House. “That is not possible, but we think it’s possible to get a lot closer. There’s the possibility to create a living, breathing dashboard in a way people can understand and relate to.”
White House officials said they hoped to help recreate the success of desktop and mobile apps and software that were built by private companies using government data, like on the real estate sites Trulia, Redfin and Zillow. Those apps use information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau to help buyers make more informed decisions about buying a home.
But the research and projections on climate change are vastly more complex than simple housing, labor and census statistics. Although a number of scientific reports have reached the consensus that carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels has warmed the planet — leading to a future of rising sea levels, melting land ice, an increase in the most damaging types of hurricanes, and drought in some places and deluges in others — scientists warn against trying to use that data to model precisely what will happen.
“The essence of dealing with climate change is not so much about identifying specific impacts at a specific time in the future, it’s about managing risk,” Christopher B. Field, the director of the department of global ecology at Stanford University, said in February.
But Anthony Janetos, director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, said there was still much merit to the effort.
“With respect to some aspects of the physical climate system, like sea-level rise, we’re on firm enough ground that you can do this kind of risk analysis,” he said. For software that will make sense of the government’s climate data, he added, “there will be a market.”