Here’s the intro to a draft proposal I’m working on to set up a new research initiative in climate change informatics at U of T (see also: possible participants and ideas for a research agenda). Comments welcome.
Climate change is likely to be the defining issue of the 21st Century. The impacts of a climate change include a dramatic reduction of food production and water supplies, more extreme weather events, the spread of disease, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and mass extinctions. We are faced with the twin challenges of mitigation (avoiding the worst climate change effects by rapidly transitioning the world to a low-carbon economy) and adaptation (re-engineering the infrastructure of modern society so that we can survive and flourish on a hotter planet)
These challenges are global in nature, and pervade all aspects of society. To address them, researchers, engineers, policymakers, and educators from many different disciplines need to come to the table and ask what they can contribute. There are both short-term challenges (such as how to deploy, as rapidly as possible, existing technology to produce renewable energy; how to design government policies and international treaties to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control) and long-term challenges (such as how to complete the transition to a global carbon-neutral society by the latter half of this century).
For Ontario, climate change is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge comes in understanding the impacts and adapting to rapid changes in public health, agriculture, management of water and energy resources, transportation, urban planning, and so on. The opportunity is the creation of green jobs through the rapid development of new alternative energy sources and energy conservation measures. Indeed, it is the opportunity to become a world leader in low-carbon technologies.
While many of these challenges and opportunities are already well understood, the role of digital media as both a critical enabling technology and a growing service industry is less well understood. Digital media is critical to effective decision making on climate change issues at all levels. For governmental planning, simulations and visualizations are essential tools for designing and communicating policy choices. For corporations large and small, effective data gathering and business intelligence tools are needed to enable a transition to low-carbon energy solutions. For communities, social networking and web 2.0 technologies are the key tools in bringing people together and enabling coordinated action, and tracking the effectiveness of that action.
Research on climate change has generally clustered around a number of research questions, each studied in isolation. In the physical sciences, the focus is on the physical processes in the atmosphere and biosphere that lead to climate change. In geography and environmental sciences, there is a strong focus on impacts and adaptation. In economics there is a focus on the trade-offs around various policy instruments. In various fields of engineering there is a push for development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies.
Yet climate change is a systemic problem, and effective action requires an inter-disciplinary approach and a clear understanding of how these various spheres of activity interact. We need the appropriate digital infrastructure for these diverse disciplines to share data and results. We need to understand better how social and psychological processes (human behaviour, peer pressure, the media, etc) interact with political processes (policymaking, leadership, voting patterns, etc), and how both are affected by our level of understanding of the physical processes of climate change. And we need to understand how information about all these processes can be factored into effective decision-making.
To address this challenge, we propose the creation of a major new initiative on Climate Change Informatics at the University of Toronto. This will build on existing work across the university on digital media and climate change, and act as a focus for inter-disciplinary research. We will investigate the use of digital media to bridge the gaps between scientific disciplines, policymakers, the media, and public opinion.