Breaking the Waves

Global warning maps and models make the process of change appear much neater and more controllable than it actually has been or will be

I spent this summer wandering along the high-water mark of future floods. As part of a project to envision a climate-changed London, I walked through Thames-front neighborhoods, trying to determine which parks and buildings would be oversurged by storms and tides and which would rise high enough for survivors to use as shelter. My guide in this effort was a map, “Surging Seas, Mapping Choices,” designed in the run-up to the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference that resulted in the Paris Agreement (the accord that President Trump recently pulled the U.S. out of). The map — made by Stamen Design, a San Francisco firm, using research conducted by Climate Central, a climate reporting organization run by journalists and scientists — allows viewers to compare the water levels projected to result from various global warming scenarios. Just type the name of a coastal location into the search bar, and the map shows you water levels after two degrees Celsius of warming (a long-discussed international target) and four degrees Celsius (the predicted consequence of business as usual).

As its name implies, the map is intended as a warning and a call to action. Overlaid fonts in traffic-cone orange and yield-sign yellow try to visually mark the urgency. But on the map itself the still dry land is coded a calming slate-gray, while the rising water is a soothing middle blue. Zoom in close enough, and you can see transparent aquamarine washing over the satellite images of buildings, the new shoreline always composed of crisp, rational straight lines.

The map is too precise and attractive to instill fear. Instead, it makes an out-of-control future look exactly predictable: These buildings will be swallowed, but not those

The map is too precise and attractive to instill fear. Instead, it makes an out-of-control future look exactly predictable: These buildings will be swallowed, but not those. And the swallowing appears as such a clean process. The buildings beneath the waterline remain intact, merely covered with blue. There’s no suggestion of damage or debris. And the difference between water levels is the work of a mouse-click. The designers of the map hoped to encourage viewers to believe that they could determine the future by lobbying governments to push for lower emissions in Paris, but the map itself suggests that control over the climate could be much more direct and much less hard-fought. Don’t worry, the graphics say, even if the water rises, it will rise in a neat and orderly progression.

Wandering through London with this map in my palm, down streets without vistas bordered by rows of brick houses, I found it hard to imagine what the world it predicted would look like, unpixelated and in three dimensions. The district of Wapping, for example, whose Rose Garden will be an island after four degrees of warming, is a place of narrow cobblestone streets and quaint, light-blocking row homes. You can’t always see the river even when a map tells you you’re walking beside it. I found a gap between a brick pub and a private dock, and it was like a secret door to a different world: I descended a flight of seaweed-coated steps and stood on a beach of pebbles brightened with terra-cotta pottery shards, looking out at a gray river lapping at the stones with a sound like sleep-deep breathing.

The tranquility of the scene matched the calming lines and colors on the Surging Seas map. Looking from Thames to palm, it was possible to gently imagine this space expanded up to the green grass of the Rose Garden, the red brick and pale cobbles of the surrounding streets long since broken into pebbles and lapped by waves on a new beach. Neither image helped me visualize the violent transition that would occur between the two, the winds and waves that would break down the buildings and scatter the people inside them. There is no connection between the clear blue and crisp lines of the Climate Central map and the recent photographs of flooding I’ve seen coming out of Houston, Bangladesh, and Puerto Rico, of high-piled debris and streets turned into muddy rivers.

The Climate Central map was an invaluable resource, and I relied on it so heavily for my project that it feels ungrateful to reprimand it. And it is by no means unique in having an aesthetically pleasing presentation that runs counter to the devastating consequences it seeks to represent. National Geographic, for example, published a series of maps inviting readers to “explore what the world’s new coastlines would look like” if all the sea ice melted, depicting the continents in resplendent, earth-from-space jewel tones. Geology.com’s sea-level-rise map has a relatively primitive, early-web design, but it still allows you to zoom in on different locations and alter sea-level rise with a drop-down arrow key, as if you were playing a very basic computer game. Its colors are also pleasing cobalt blues for sea and pale greens or light ochres for land and not the turgid browns and grays of actual storm surges.

Temperature projections also can be surprisingly attractive. A map showing that the average summer temperature in North Africa and the Middle East will increase by five degrees Celsius by mid-century if business continues as usual paints the region in a vibrant crimson offset by patches of hotter maroon and cooler tangerine. The image is dotted with small black circles, which actually indicate that all 26 climate models used to predict the increase are in agreement, but aesthetically they still soften the visual impact of the map. The bright colors and regular pattern suggest the fabric for a child’s summer dress.

Designed to show inputs and outputs, maps and models can’t easily represent process. They tend to obscure the truth that the main danger of climate change is change: which means mess and violence and fleshy bodies against heat and water. The dominance of such maps in the visual culture of climate-change discourse makes the process of change appear much neater and more controllable than it actually has been or will be.

There is a delicate balance between depicting climate change as urgent enough of a problem to inspire action, and inundating viewers with paralyzing images of apocalypse. In “Communicating Climate Change: Closing the Science-Action Gap,” Susanne C. Moser and Lisa Dilling discuss how fear-based appeals without any accompanying action plan lead to “denial, numbing, and apathy.” The designers of these maps do not want to frighten people away from engaging. However, the false reassurance of the aesthetically pleasing images can lead to a different kind of paralysis: the false political reassurance that the panels of experts, private interests, and global summits that have been consistently convened to try to get us out of this crisis will eventually get it right without our having to do anything.

Take Mission 2020, which sets itself the laudable goal of “bending the curve” on carbon emissions by 2020, with an eye on reaching zero emissions by 2050. On its website one sees first a statement of purpose in bold white against a gradient of crimson and orange. The background choice is confusing, since it at once suggests the hotter temperatures the Mission hopes to avoid and makes them look surprisingly appealing. The white text laying out the goal is especially striking against the bright orange background; it does not look like a future to avoid at all costs. Scrolling down, one next sees a lineup of six hoped-for milestones in bright, primary colors: for example, “renewables outperform fossil fuels” and “heavy industry … commits to being Paris compliant.” There is apparently nothing the ordinary visitor needs to do to bring about this bright future but scroll down even further and buy a T-shirt that reads “Stubborn Climate Optimist.”

Mission 2020’s chances of success appear to rely entirely on the innovations of the well-educated and the actions of the powerful. Its website proclaims its benchmark to be “achievable” because “renewables are rapidly falling in price,” “technological progress on battery storage” is improving the performance of renewables and electric cars, and business leaders, cities, and the financial community are working on solutions. There is no mention of the fact that chasing cheaper, more efficient energy is how we warmed the planet in the first place. Nor does the website address the question of what happens when profits and climate action clash. The auto industry might be coming around on electric cars now, but in 2001 GM famously killed their own electric model after lobbying successfully to weaken the California legislation that had required they build it. And if renewables are doing well now, it is partly thanks to the activists who pushed for laws requiring states and countries get a certain percentage of their energy from clean sources; half the investments in Germany’s green energy boom came from individual citizens or citizens’ energy associations.

The mission is spearheaded by Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change who helped broker the 2015 Paris Agreement, and I sincerely wish her every success in this endeavor. But it seems naive to expect business leaders, governments, and financial tycoons to turn the tide on climate change without massive grassroots pressure from the rest of us. Now is not the time to be lulled into the dream that we can sit back and watch the corporate PowerPoint presentation. Yet this is the aesthetic the Mission 2020 site most suggests.

Why do mainstream climate organizations rely on the visual language of data, focusing on representing “degrees hotter” and “meters higher” instead of lives lost or homes swallowed? By placing an emphasis on the facts of climate change rather than its human consequences, centrist liberals can turn climate denial into a bigger enemy than climate inaction. In a recent segment, for example, Samantha Bee led a group of climate skeptics through a “Hell House” of climate-change predictions. The punch line was that the one guest to change her mind changed it not from fear of any vision in the house but because the other invitees were so obviously ignorant, she feared to be publicly associated with their views. By focusing on changing minds, with a few jokes at the expense of the dummies thrown in, you never have to answer the truly frightening question of what to do once all the minds have been changed.

Now is not the time to be lulled into the dream that we can sit back and watch the corporate PowerPoint presentation

The centrist use of fact dissemination as a bulwark against radical action extends beyond climate change. Writing after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Bue Rubner Hansen and Rune Moller Stahl argue that liberals have emphasized a vision of government as fact-based administration. In fact, one of the great lies of the neoliberal era was the assurance that formerly political concerns could now be managed by experts rather than debated by real life stakeholders. In Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” one of that era’s opening salvos, he claimed wistfully that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “worldwide ideological struggle” would be replaced by “the endless solving of technical problems” and “environmental concerns.”

One example of this mentality in action is the graphic and map-filled election night coverage, which, up until 2017’s surprise, might have tricked viewers into thinking the results have more to do with Nate Silver’s projections than with door knocking. According to Politico, the Clinton campaign even ordered a group of SEIU members, who were anxious about Michigan and wanted to canvas there, to turn around and return to Iowa because the campaign’s models told them Michigan was safe.

Brexit and Trump prove definitively that the expert control of politics is over. But climate change still presents a special dilemma for anyone clinging to both fact-based leadership and neoliberal capitalism. All the smartest people in the relevant fields agree that climate change is happening and is caused by humans. And all those people haven’t been able to do anything about it because capitalism has gotten in the way. The first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, a year before Fukuyama penned his essay. Five IPCCs later, and 2016 was the hottest year on record.

That is because climate change is not merely a technical problem; it is an inherently political one: a question of who has the power to profit from polluting and who is left to pay the price, in flooded homes, droughts, and worse. This is not to say that technology can’t help curb emissions, but its effectiveness will always be constrained by political forces. For instance, Naomi Klein, in an interview about her book This Changes Everything, discusses how Germany has managed to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources yet its emissions are still up because the country still mines and exports coal, and “Angela Merkel refuses to stand up to the coal lobby.” World Trade Organization rules often hamper green energy innovation. In another example from Klein’s book, a law designed to wean Ontario off coal by 2014 was struck down by the WTO because it allowed renewable energy companies to sell power back to the grid if 40 to 60 percent of their materials and workers were local, something that violated the organization’s ban on laws that distinguish between local and international companies.

Climate change will not be solved by appealing to the status quo because the status quo is designed to protect the profits of international firms above all else. No wonder then that centrist liberals, forced to choose between markets and facts, retreat into graphic fantasy. Stamen Design, the firm behind the Climate Central map, also did data visualization for Toyota i-Road, a sustainable, three-wheeled vehicle, ahead of its 2015 test drive by tech luminaries and car enthusiasts in San Francisco. When corporate greenwashing and climate-change models share a glossy visual language, all sense of struggle, in both the hopeful and harrowing sense of the word, is erased. Climate change then appears like something safely out of ordinary hands, when in fact it will take all hands to slow it and to care for those it has already displaced.

Scientist Brad Werner developed a computer model of interactions between humans and the environment that revealed that the one human action that had a chance against climate change was popular resistance on levels analogous to the civil rights or anti-slavery movements. According to the summary of his research at Slate, “every other element — environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.” What’s needed is to jolt nonscientists, ordinary people, out of the illusion that they can rely on staid experts to resolve this crisis. In a small effort toward this end, Werner gave his presentation of this research at the 2012 American Geological Union meeting a pointed title: “Is Earth F**cked?” He said the irreverence of his title was sparked by his friends who were depressed not by the good climate science being done to predict the future “but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an appropriate response. It’s a response that refuses to wait on politicians or technocrats. Klein refers to a “Blockadia” movement, a loose network of ordinary people putting their bodies in between the earth and new means of extracting fossil fuels, as at the protest camp at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline. But this too is dangerous and messy, much harder than choosing a certain number of degrees of warming on an interactive map. When you look at the videos that emerged from the camp resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline, you see an eerie echo of the news images of floods and hurricanes: fleshy bodies against water.

It may be that recognizing ourselves as this vulnerable is the only way we will save ourselves. Right now, the communities leading the direct action fight against climate change are often, like the Standing Rock Sioux, indigenous groups who are fighting the encroachment of fossil fuel companies on their local environments. As the already vulnerable will disproportionately suffer from climate change itself, the already vulnerable pay a disproportionate price to fight it: 40 percent of those murdered for environmental activism in 2015 were from indigenous communities. For many of these groups, fighting climate change is not an abstract mission but part of the work of caring for and protecting their very specific homes.

It is that local detail that is partly missing in maps and models intended to synthesize data points into a single narrative. The neat images which summarize that work obscure the labor that went into them as well as the action needed to prevent them. In an interview in Art in the Anthropocene, Bruno Latour talks about how Charles Keeling, whose measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii first raised the possibility of anthropogenic climate change, got his data by “being there for everyday for 30 years, or even 50 years.” He calls this patient observation, “the science of care.” That sense of care is lost when you look at the zipper-like upsweep of the Keeling Curve.

But it is care that must be central to the discussion around climate change, because it is care that has been sidelined by the economic forces that unleashed it. Lowering emissions in time to avoid more hurricanes means committing to the belief that nothing — no invention, no profit motive, no growth opportunity — is more important than the preservation and flourishing of life, human and otherwise. Perhaps such care cannot be effectively mapped. It can only be enacted.

Olivia Rosane has a master’s in art and politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. For her dissertation, she completed a multimedia imagining of communities surviving in a climate-changed London. She spent her 20s working and organizing at a bookstore and writing about drones and internet literature for The State. Her work has also appeared in the New InquiryYes! Magazine, and the Dissent blog.