Climate Change Starting Points
Six resources to help you navigate climate science.
Since stepping down as CEO of Postlight, I’ve been learning about climate change. This work is harder, in many ways, than my work as CEO.
Climate change isn’t a single discipline. It’s a mix of climatology and paleoclimatology, statistics (especially statistics of probability), data science, parallel supercomputing, cartography, information visualization, international relations, macroeconomics, microeconomics, communications theory, technical writing, political science, risk analysis and management, systems thinking, materials science, construction project management, psychology, sociology, agriculture, energy systems analysis, physics, chemistry, fluid dynamics, supply chain management, and thousands of other subdisciplines, many of which involve huge legacy software platforms.
I cannot learn all of these things in a year, or in 50 years. But neither I nor the climate has 50 years (we have negative 50 years). Plus, I am alive right now, I have a column in Wired right now, I am the co-founder of Postlight right now. (Fun fact: Climate change work is already a big chunk of Postlight’s business.) So I should do this sooner rather than later.
I think there are two main ways I could help with climate change. (1) I am a technologist who can develop digital things that help people prepare for climate change or help them to release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (2) I am a writer who can communicate about climate change. However, there are a billion ways I could screw up. I could advocate for innovations that don’t really work or push for solutions or approaches that seem promising but aren’t ready yet. I don’t know what I don’t know.
Thus my goal is: Learn just enough to be helpful, then do things with what I learned while I learn more ways to be helpful. An important part of being helpful is to never represent myself as something I’m not, e.g., to be absolutely unashamed of not knowing things, while pointing to people with more expertise.
How hard can it be? You might be thinking, This guy is dumb as hell. I’m smart. I’m good at learning things. I’ll just read Wikipedia and become a climate person. But take a look at these two slides from the CarbonBrief.org trivia night. This is what truly deep domain knowledge about climate change looks like:
They do this every year. It’s a disgusting quiz. These people are obviously very sick. But how did you do? I did very badly. That’s why I need to keep reading and using the resources I list below. None of these resources are without critics, but they’re all things that people acknowledge as credible, they are grounded in climate science first, and they all fit together into one body of knowledge. Nor do they offer simple solutions. They all start with physical risks before moving on to mitigation or adaptation strategies.
While I am still finding my way, I feel secure recommending them to you. They’re sources of knowledge to make you think. They won’t harm you or the planet, and they are all very serious about the risks of climate change, even if they’re funny. I’d welcome hearing about other things I should see.
Starting point: Probable Futures
This is a not-for-profit organization that came to Postlight two years ago seeking to build a platform to communicate climate change and bring climate science into culture. The Probable Futures web platform is the result of a large team of people working together for a long time, with Postlight as one component of that team, and it’s one of the finest editorial/communications platforms I’ve ever seen, even if we did build it.
I have spent an extremely large number of hours looking at Probable Futures maps, and there is always something more to learn.
Also, I’ve worked with these people for years and have never seen them budge one iota from their mission of making a better future. It will take you an hour to read the entire thing. Every single word and image was chosen carefully by people who are building bridges between culture, finance, and science but always putting the science first. The site exists for the public good and is untouched by weird sponsors.
If there’s one reason why I stepped down as CEO, it’s because I watched these nerds make cool maps and wanted to get in on it. Little did I know I’d end up programming a bunch of Python code to load geodata into a database while simultaneously ending up on a humbling, lifelong journey that leaves my computer’s desktop littered with PDFs and my brain feeling like it’s been microwaved nearly every night. They sure fooled me.
Science: The Woodwell Climate Research Center
There are many climate-focused scientific organizations, and I don’t have the skills to evaluate their differences. Woodwell is a well-known, incredibly respected organization that works closely with Probable Futures. I’ve worked with Woodwell’s data and have read papers by their team in the best-known academic journals. I subscribe to their email list and attend webinars they give. They are obviously the real deal in every way. I think you, too, should pick a climate center and adopt it and look at the events they throw, the things they talk about, and how they communicate with the world. I would even suggest it be Woodwell. Also, they’re nice, and their website is pretty.
Textbook: Introduction to Climate Science
I found this by googling “free climate textbook,” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s written by a professor at Oregon State, and there is an epub version. It tells you about climate and paleoclimate, gives you an understanding of models, and has plenty of diagrams. It won’t be fast-going if you’re a liberal arts type like me, but if you plow through this book, all of the conversations happening about climate change in all of these other things will make much more sense very quickly.
General news: Bloomberg Green
There are many climate writers out there whom I really like, and some amazing newsletters, but the best one-stop-shop is Bloomberg Green. It covers the climate industry as an industry, and calls out green stuff that doesn’t live up to its own promises. It’s good, informed journalism. A lot of climate journalism focuses on how bad it’s going to get, and a lot of it is very serious and somber and evocative and prize-winning. But Bloomberg Green is just: Welp. Here we are. Its journalists did extremely well at the last CarbonBrief trivia event.
Unfortunately it’s expensive (you can only get it with a full Bloomberg sub), but I’m glad to pay for it. The print magazine is good too. I like it so much I worry about it. I need it to continue. (Disclosure: I’ve written for Bloomberg a lot in the past.)
Trade news: CarbonBrief
These are the people who write the questions for trivia night, operating at a level of extreme climate nerd. When you learn something about Earth System Models and find the Wikipedia page incomprehensible, or when everyone on Twitter who does energy systems is arguing with climate modelers about RCP8.5 in a huge and terrible thread, a good next stop is CarbonBrief. It’s a trade publication for the climate change world. It has good general explainers as well, but I find it most useful in helping me situate myself as I try to fathom the 8 billion concepts involved in this discipline, or to parse some argument I don’t understand. The next stop after CarbonBrief is actually reading scientific journals. Pace yourself.
Entertainment: A Rational Fear
This is a satirical podcast, created by Dan Ilic, about Australian politics, which is not one of my major interests. But it does something very specific and important. It makes climate part of the conversation in a natural way, as a fundamental aspect of any story. A climate activist might be in the room with a bunch of comedians, and they will have just as much voice as anyone else. People will joke about Rupert Murdoch electrocuting himself with a Tesla battery to atone for his destruction of the world.
In general, Australia’s climate activists seem to be ahead of the US’s in how they work climate into things, perhaps because the country is, at its essence, an enormous flammable ovoid operated by coal goblins. The other climate podcasts I’ve heard are very…educational. But this one makes me want to hang out and see what else they come up with. I like getting notified about it. It makes me laugh out loud. I don’t despair when I listen to it. I need to donate to its Patreon.
What I’m doing
So how am I going to be acting once I’m done reading? I’m not a scientist or an activist, but I can discuss my own reactions to climate things. I can talk about climate reports as journalism, or climate models as software, and bring the journalism/software parts of my understanding to bear. For example, I could talk about a netCDF file filled with climate data and explain what’s inside, or review a novel about climate change, or discuss a document from the UN as a standard. I’ve been doing this in my Wired column, but perhaps I’ll start a newsletter to do just this; our world so desperately needs more newsletters. Perhaps in time I could become something like a climate critic. This is like being an architecture or music critic. You can’t actually do the thing, but you still get to complain.
As a technologist who co-founded a software company, I can do more work to bring the world of climate science closer to other parts of the technology world. The work with Probable Futures has shown me that you can look at climate data not as some immovable and impossible science thing, but as a kind of API to access the very nature of the Earth itself. It’s not as opaque as you might expect. It’s just…data.
A lot of people are talking about climate as a growth industry, and I’m sure that if I work hard on this, I’ll find opportunities for Postlight, but I think we have to be frank and accept that not everything worth doing is going to grow a company in the near term. That’s fine.
I’m sure I’ll get things wrong, because I’m operating from imperfect information. I hate that, but what can you do? And I’m sure I’ll need to ask for much more help than I’m used to. I think I’ll start going to protests. Now that I’m not CEO, I can get arrested without harming the company, plus my co-founder is a lawyer, which will be a real time-saver. I probably won’t chain myself to a tree, though. They don’t make chains in my size.
I’ve been humbled by this discipline, but I also recommend learning it. I’m not as scared of a future I can plan for. Over time I’ll share more about what I’m doing, what Postlight is doing, and what I’m learning. But mostly I’m going to point to what other people are doing, and this article is a start. If you’d like to reach out, my email is open. Go check out Probable Futures. See you soon.
Paul Ford (he/him) is a Co-Founder of Postlight. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find him on Twitter @ftrain.
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Story published on Oct 13, 2021.