92nd American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting (January 22-26, 2012)

Monday, 23 January 2012: 5:00 PM
Communicating with Climate Change Visuals: Two Exploratory Exercises
Room 243 (New Orleans Convention Center )
Rachel E. Riley, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK; and H. F. Needham, L. M. Carter, and C. E. Lunday

Visuals can be used to communicate a wealth of information in a small amount of time or space. Scientific findings are often communicated in visual formats, and information about climate change is no exception. The Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program (SCIPP), through two exploratory exercises, investigated how best to visually communicate climate change information to decision-makers. This topic was explored during a sector-based breakout session at a meeting with 23 local, state, tribal, and federal decision-makers in Oklahoma, and during interviews with approximately 50 coastal decision-makers in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

During the breakout session we gathered data on how decision-makers interpreted various images that portrayed observed and projected changes in global and regional temperature and precipitation patterns. The decision-makers also discussed whether the information that was portrayed was useful to them based on the spatial and temporal scales and the type of visual (e.g. graph or map) that was used. The participants were broken into four sector-based groups: agriculture, water resources, cities/tribes, and cross-sector (transportation and non-profit). Overall, there was a need for more localized information than what was portrayed in the images. In addition, the participants would have liked to have seen quantifiable uncertainty information. The participants in the water resources and cities/tribes groups also highlighted the fact that while they may have understood the visuals themselves, the city council members and taxpayers to whom they have to convince of their funding needs may not have. In addition, the water resources, cities/tribes, and cross-sector groups noted that a visual that communicates impacts, whether positive or negative, is useful information. For example, a 1 to 2oF rise in temperature over several decades would not motivate many people to take mitigation or adaptation measures seriously, but translating the temperature change into a local impact would communicate more immediacy (e.g. projected number of days over 90oF). The agriculture group expressed concern in the accuracy of climate change projections and said emphasis should be placed on historical trends rather than future projections. Ten to 20 year projections were beyond their useful planning horizons.

Climate change information was also disseminated during the coastal interviews via fliers that showed observed and projected changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level rise. The fliers showcased various graphs, maps, and images that ranged from local to national perspectives. In general, the participants were particularly intrigued by the sea level rise flier and the projected local impacts it would have on them. The simple and consistent message portrayed in the flier struck a chord with many of the participants. The participants were also engaged with the precipitation flier, especially a seasonal projection map that showed drier conditions prevailing throughout the end of the century. The participants did not connect as strongly with the temperature flier except where there were indications of, for example, the increase in the number of days over 90oF. A brief discussion lead them to the realization that some impacts would then likely combine for greater local consequences.

The Oklahoma and Gulf Coast exercises revealed two consistent findings: 1) Decision-makers have an easier time understanding the potential negative impacts of climate change when information is presented in a localized format, and 2) Decision-makers were more interested in the secondary impacts rather than the primary impacts of changes in average temperature and precipitation trends.

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