Climate Change and New Efforts to Help People Understand What They Can't See

Visual illustrations can give meaning to overwhelming emissions numbers.
by | February 2017
(Carbon Visuals)

In 2012, the U.S. added over 39 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to a pile of 33-foot-diameter one-metric-ton spheres stacked 2.3 miles high and 4.6 miles across.

Got it? Of course not. But thanks to the image above, you now have a sense of the scope of these numbers. Governments have hundreds of thousands of data sets available for public use -- the feds alone offer nearly 200,000. But much of that information can be difficult to comprehend or visualize. As a result, companies aiming to make data more accessible have begun to emerge.

Real World Visuals is one of those companies, and its mission is to help people better understand climate change. For example, it created visualizations to illustrate the Climate Action Plan, or give insight into the scale of a methane leak in California in 2015.

Antony Turner, managing director of Real World Visuals, talked to Governing about the importance of making data relatable. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How can visualizations of data help cities?

Many of the big challenges faced by cities are ones where invisibility is a major factor. Energy use, carbon emissions and local air pollution are critical issues that we don’t “see.” Our brains are not good at engaging with pure data and numbers. That’s where good data visualization comes in, whether to help policymakers with better decision-making or keep citizens informed and engaged.

Why do you think visualizations encourage engagement?

People are more likely to engage with data if it can be presented in a way that is simple, intriguing and uses the landscape or cityscape. Most data visualization is abstract -- bar and pie charts. They are useful, indeed vital for people who are familiar with data. But our specialty is creating “concrete” visuals where we turn mass into volumes and place these in familiar landscapes.

A great example of our work is an experimental animation film that took a report about the carbon footprint of New York City and turned a number -- 54 million tons of carbon dioxide -- into something real and tangible. The film says, “If you could see the emissions, this is the size they would be.”

What is different about what your organization does?

We only create visualizations; we do not create data ourselves. We rely on scientists, government agencies and respected commercial sources for that. Governments are often, for regulatory reasons, the very best sources of high-quality data.