I posted a while back the introduction to a research proposal in climate change informatics. And I also posted a list of potential research areas, and a set of criteria by which we might judge climate informatics tools. But I didn’t say what kinds of things we might want climate informatics tools to do. Here’s my first attempt, based on a slide I used at the end of my talk on usable climate science:

What do we want the tools to support?

What I was trying to lay out on this slide was a wide range of possible activities for which we could build software tools, combining good visualizations, collaborative support, and compelling user interface design. If we are to improve the quality of the public discourse on climate change, and support the kind of collective decision making that leads to effective action, we need better tools for all four of these areas:

  • Improve the public understanding of the basic science. Much of this is laid out in the IPCC reports, but to most people these are “dead tree science” – lots of thick books that very few people will read. So, how about some dynamic, elegant and cool tools to convey:
    • The difference between emissions and concentrations.
    • The various sources of emissions and how we know about them from detection/attribution studies.
    • The impacts of global warming on your part of the world – health, food and water, extreme weather events, etc.
    • The various mitigation strategies we have available, and what we know about the cost and effectiveness of each.
  • Achieve a better understanding of how the science works, to allow people to evaluate the nature of the evidence about climate change:
    • How science works, as a process of discovery, including how scientists develop theories, and how they correct mistakes.
    • What climate models are and how they are used to improve our understanding of climate processes.
    • How the peer-review process works, and why it is important, both as a filter for poor research, and a way of assessing the credentials of scientists.
    • What it means to be expert in a particular field, why expertise matters, and why expertise in one area of science doesn’t necessarily mean expertise in another.
  • Tools to support critical thinking, to allow people to analyze the situation for themselves:
    • The importance of linking claims to sources of evidence, and the use of multiple sources of evidence to test a claim.
    • How to assess the credibility of a particular claim, and the credibility of its source (desperately needed for appropriate filtering of ‘found’ information on the internet).
    • Systems Thinking – because reductionist approaches won’t help. People need to be able to recognize and understand whole systems and the dynamics of systems-of-systems.
    • Understanding risk – because the inability to assess risk factors is a major barrier to effective action.
    • Identifying the operation of vested interests. Because much of the public discourse isn’t about science or politics. It’s about people with vested interests attempting to protect those interests, often at the expense of the rest of society.
  • And finally, none of the above makes any difference if we don’t also provide tools to support effective action:
    • How to prioritize between short-term and long term goals.
    • How to identify which kinds of personal action are important and effective.
    • How to improve the quality of policy-making, so that policy choices are linked to the scientific evidence.
    • How to support consensus building and democratic action for collective decision making, at the level of communities, cities, nationals, and globally.
    • Tools to monitor effectiveness of policies and practices once they are implemented.

1 Comment

  1. ‘Improve the public understanding of the basic science. … The impacts of global warming on your part of the world – health, food and water, extreme weather events, etc.’

    Hmmm. How can we understand what doesn’t yet exist? (And ‘*basic* science’?)

    This is the most important bit for most of us. (Oh, *that* ‘basic’!) Impacts need an area or three all to themselves. We don’t care – or need to know? – about atmospheric physics. Just what will happen in various parts of the world.

    Alas, nobody knows very much about that – and what little is known has been so much oversold that perhaps you’re right and, despite its being of secondary importance for most of us, you’d do better for now concentrating on increasing our understanding of How Science Works and so on.

    Tricky, though. That sort of thing is better done at school.

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