Scientists from CIESIN talk about the climate crisis in a Climate Week Event.

Code Red: Vulnerability to extreme heat, floods, and displacement, was a climate week event that drew its name from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ description of the 6th IPCC Report as a “Code Red for humanity.” The report detailed the ways that human influence, which has already caused widespread changes in the atmosphere, ocean, and cryosphere, will continue to wreak havoc throughout the rest of the 21st century.

The event included presentations from Cascade Tuholske, Carolyne Hultquist, and Alex de Sherbinin, all scientists affiliated with CIESIN, a part of Columbia’s new climate school, talking about their work looking at climate-change induced risks.

One striking thing was that all of them discussed the fact that in some aspect of their work, despite the pressing nature of climate change, there are significant gaps in the data we use, which is a major issue given that although the models we can use to track various aspects of the climate crisis are incredibly powerful tools, they require significant data inputs to run. 

One of the ways Dr. Tuholske highlighted the issue was by noting that from 1990 to present, officially there’s only been two heatwaves on the entire continent of Africa because there are simply not records of many extreme heat events, even though we know that these events have been happening. He also noted that over 3 billion people in urban areas live 25 km or more from the nearest weather station, making it difficult to map the effect of extreme heat in urban areas, which was what his presentation centered on.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hultquist noted that she had to combine many datasets in order to have comprehensive data such as that collected by the US Census, while also still being able to have temporal resolution, which is critical in order to track things like climate gentrification, an important aspect of her work in accounting for vulnerable populations in flood risk calculations. Dr. de Sherbinin, who presented on his work on climate migration, told the audience that “we need to know why people move,” but that despite concern that climate migration could be an increasing issue in the coming decades, that there is actually very little data in understanding the exact factors that cause people to decide to migrate.

A lack of data isn’t our only problem: it’s also being unprepared. Speaking about the impacts of extreme heat, Dr. Tuholske said, “I would argue extreme heat is a silent killer,” noting that climate change induced extreme heat events will likely be much worse than we expect, particularly for areas with little experience with these types of events. As somebody from one of those areas unaccustomed to extreme heat he referred to, that’s already the case—this summer, Seattle experienced record heat that might be considered normal elsewhere, but was incredibly difficult to deal with in a city where because we aren’t accustomed to temperatures above 100, there isn’t the infrastructure in place to deal with it. Few people have AC because of historically mild summers, meaning that as the climate has been rapidly changing, hot summers catch the city, and many like it, unprepared.

While the presentations were all fascinating to me from a scientific perspective, particularly that this was an event open to those with varying levels of familiarity with climate science, I do wish that some of the presenters had made more explicit the relevance of their research rather than focusing on some of the nitty-gritty details of the algorithms and verifications of their data. Though the details of the procedures used to obtain the results are important, getting into the technical aspects of this in a presentation aimed at a wider audience was something easy to get lost in due to the nature of the specialized and complicated procedures and algorithms used in obtaining results. 

Though the presentations did in many ways present a picture of a future that could be very grim, in the Q&A at the end, Dr. de Sherbinin tried to end on a slightly more positive note, saying that we “can’t underestimate human creativity” and our ability to survive and adapt with a changing climate.

burning earth via Pixabay