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WWMS — What Would The Map Say? Simple: We Can Save Ourselves

Apr 11, 2023

If you look across the map of the United States, there is some astonishing good news about climate. News you certainly don't know.

Eight U.S. states get more than half of their electricity from renewable sources. Some of them, to be sure, are small — South Dakota gets 83% of its electricity from hydro and wind; Vermont gets 76% of its electricity from hydro, wind and solar.

But some are large and populous — Washington state (74% renewable), Oregon (64%), Iowa (59%).

Ten more states get 25% or more of their electricity from renewable sources — including California (36%), New York (28%), and Texas (26%).

Just those three — California, Texas and New York — are home to 89 million Americans, more than one-fourth of the country. By itself, Texas produces more renewable power now than is used in 47 of the 50 states.

Wasn't it just yesterday when the skeptics and the pessimists were explaining that it was impossible for us to run our modern, demanding economy with renewable energy?

Guess what: It's not a dream. It's reality. We’re doing it.

It's not just that renewable energy is growing quickly in the U.S. and around the world, just as we need it to. The pace at which we’re creating renewable energy capacity is itself increasing. We’re getting more renewable energy, more quickly.

We are peppered every day with bad news about climate and its impact — on our lives and neighbors, our forests and coasts, our weather, and our future. We do need that news, because the world is in trouble, and we need to work hard to change course.

But at this point, we all know that.

We’re ready for solutions and progress. Because while we have been taking measure of the mess in every possible way, a whole different picture has been taking shape.

We have figured out how to save ourselves. We just need to do it.

In historical terms, it seems striking that a problem of the scale of climate change, and its solution, would develop at the same time — almost in parallel. But that's exactly what's happened.

The solution is deceptively simple: It's a map.

But it's a map of a sort that even a decade ago wasn't possible.

It's a map that actively pulls in data from every imaginable kind of source — from simple thermometers to orbiting satellites — and makes that data understandable.

It's a map that shows us our problems — but is powerful enough to also show us our solutions.

It's a kind of map that leaves out nothing — it shows the people, the economy, the trees, the water, the weather, the roads, all at once — not as a muddle, but as a story.

It's a map that can even show us what hasn't happened yet — so we can, literally, change the future.

We’ve stepped into an era when we can combine geography and technology to get action.

Consider how Prague, a city that is 1,000 years old, has done just that. Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic and its largest city—three times the size of Washington, DC— and in the summer of 2015, the city suffered an unprecedented heat wave. Half the days in July and August set temperature records.

In the context of climate change, the heat wave galvanized Prague. Officials deployed a network of sensors across the city which continuously report data on temperature changes, solar radiation, humidity. They were answering crucial questions. How livable is Prague, for its residents, at ground level — neighborhood by neighborhood?

Not just livable, what parts of Prague are most vulnerable to heat — street by street? Who lives in those neighborhoods, and which of those people are vulnerable? What interventions could change that? If we make those changes, would they work?

Geography is the key to understanding and answering all those questions, but it's this new kind of precision geography that relies on GIS — geographic information systems. GIS uses geography as the framework for everything else — here's the building-by-building map of Prague. Add demographic data. Add weather data — historical temperatures, recent temperatures, current temperatures, predicted temperatures. Here are the streets, the squares, the greenspace, the places with trees, the places with bare pavement. GIS lets us see the whole picture with clarity, and without the distortion of wishful thinking.

It lets us use data, high-powered computing, and cutting-edge software to do three things: See the problem in detail. See the most cost-effective solutions block by block. Then assess their effectiveness.

Prague put a new park around Wenceslas Square, in a 700-year-old section of the city, which has piled up centuries of paved spaces. The city embarked on a determined — but precision targeted — effort to plant new trees. They figured out how to plant grass alongside trolley tracks, and even between the trolley tracks, replacing heat-trapping pavement with green space in all kinds of innovative, and appealing, spots.

The analysis you can do with GIS allowed Prague officials to find the parts of the city that are the actual "hot spots," and to target resources to places where they’ll do the most good.

While all that seems sensible, even obvious, that kind of block-level understanding and mitigation — called micro-climate modeling — is only possible by combining GIS with this new generation of wireless sensors, computing power, mathematical models. It's made vivid and comprehensible with mapping software that turns warehouses of data into a picture, into a story. Here are the parts of Prague that get the hottest. Here are the parts of Prague home to the people most at risk. Here are the parts of Prague where green roofs and shade trees will change what happens when the heat returns.

The very same tools that made the problem clear, and the solutions clear, show that the new green infrastructure works. Prague officials can measure the temperature reductions — also block by block.

That's using a map — a layered, detailed map — to understand climate change, and then take climate action.

Climate change is geography. It's about what's happening in a place, and what's going to happen in that place. And the reverse is suddenly true as well: Geography is climate change.

The future of a coastal city like Charleston, SC, or the rich farming areas of the U.S. Great Plains, or the fire-ravaged western forests of Canada — all can be understood using the new power of geography.

The technology is so central that the U.S. government last fall rolled out a real-time climate map of the whole country, with detailed information down to the census-tract level. The CMRA (Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation) is a portal that shows what's happened in the last 90 days — wildfires, flooding, drought — but also what's happened in the last 30 years, and what is predicted to happen in the next 30. CMRA includes population, demographic, environmental, and even building-code data. It's a remarkable new resource.

Nicknamed "camera," CMRA is a mapping and data engine, all available online, for free. If you’re rebuilding bridges, widening roads, expanding an airport, or trying to strengthen the power grid to handle summer air conditioning demand, CRMA is the place to start. And, if you’re trying to design incentives to encourage adoption of solar energy, or you’re planning the emergency response for a major hurricane across South Florida.

One thing CMRA and the new technology-powered maps make so clear: The decades-old idea that people and nature are rivals, or even antagonists, is simply wrong. Human flourishing requires healthy natural systems. A secure environment is the foundation for human flourishing.

You don't have to look back very far to see a perfect comparison to the situation we find ourselves in.

Before the launch of weather satellites in the late 1960s, weather forecasting was both harder and less reliable than it is today. Without the view of the world from space, it was impossible to see weather systems developing, and impossible to predict their intensity or behavior before they were upon us. Today's seven-day weather forecasts are more reliable than 48-hour forecasts were in 1975. We know what's coming — and we act accordingly, from planning a picnic to planning distribution routes for groceries. That saves lives and money. It shapes the work and activities of everyone from truckers and airline pilots to farmers and supply chain managers.

The tools we’ve developed in the last decade built on GIS provide the same leap in understanding and predictability for climate as satellites did for weather. As satellites really gave us a new way of seeing the Earth, and the weather, our new geographic tools also give us a new way of seeing where we live — allowing us to see the future in a way that means we can tackle our problems and anticipate them. And prevent them.

With the weather, once we can see what is coming, we don't just have the possibility of acting — we do act. With climate, our new tools will have the same impact: Once we see as much as we can, we’ll act on it.

Geography plus technology does more than make action possible, it compels it.

Climate change is often portrayed as not just an existential threat, but also a divisive one. One of the hidden virtues of geography is that it is a unifying tool: Here's a map of where we all live. Here's what we’re all facing — together. Here are a set of solutions that we can put right onto the map — to see, together, what happens if we use them.

Geography isn't just an analytical tool, it's a powerful way of communicating. Maps tell us a story about ourselves.

We all care about the health and safety of our communities, our loved ones, our families, and our neighbors. We care about our future, and the future of our neighbors.

It's possible that as geography shows us what we most need to do, it will also powerfully remind us that we’re all on the map together.