23 October 2018

Imagine how hot the future will be by looking to your past

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Shane M Hanlon

The recent IPCC report was pretty stark. The sensationalist headlines aside, warming needs to be limited to 1.5 °C and that’s much safer than 2 °C, but still risky. There are benefits like significantly reducing the risks of water scarcity, ill-health, food insecurity, flood and drought, extreme heat, tropical cyclones, biodiversity loss, and sea level rise. However, 1.5 °C is still bad.

But what does 1.5 °C even look (or feel) like? Can we actually sense that, or at least imagine what that might feel like? This is part of the problem of communicating the risks of warming. Putting things in the terms of temperature rise is better (from a public communication perspective) than the extremely technical models used by scientists in the field, but is still imperfect. That’s why scientists and communicators are looking for ways to (re)frame the messaging around climate science.

In a recent paper, Reframing Future Risks of Extreme Heat in the United States, the authors showed that framing future rises in global temperature in the context of previous regionally-specific extreme heat events helps people imagine what these rises looks like. In other words, if you experienced the 2010 heatwave in Los Angeles, you’re more likely to be able to imagine future increases in average temperatures.

This work is an important step in helping the non-science public realize the seriousness of future temperature projections.

-Shane M Hanlon is an AGU Sharing Science Senior Specialist. Find him @ecologyofshane.