Collaborative project aims at educating the public on effects of global climate change

An example of augmented reality created by Francis Choi, senior lab technician at Northeastern’s Helmuth Lab.


A professor and PhD student in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs (SPPUA) have partnered with the Museum of Science in Boston and Arizona State University to create visualizations that communicate threats from climate change.

Brian Helmuth, professor of environmental science and public policy, Francis Choi, senior lab technician at Northeastern’s Helmuth Lab, and David Sittenfeld, forum program manager at the Museum of Science and a student in SPPUA’s PhD in Law and Public Policy, are developing scenarios and visualizations to communicate climate change vulnerabilities and engage hundreds of participants around the country in thinking about potential economic, social and environmental impacts of proposed resilience strategies for four environmental climate-related hazards: drought, heat waves, sea level rise, and extreme precipitation.

These modules will then be employed at eight science centers over the next two years, with the first pilot forum taking place June 11 at the Museum of Science. The Northeastern team, led by Helmuth and Choi, is creating visualizations of these hazards as well as possible resilience strategies and their potential impacts on communities using information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other data.


“At a time when people are deeply polarized along ideological lines around our nation, we need a new way of bringing people from different viewpoints and backgrounds together and consider how to deal with problems like future climate-related hazards on a societal level. We’re hoping that this project will lead to a new kind of respectful, informed discourse that visualizes scientific evidence while engaging a diverse group of everyday citizens in participatory decision-making around policy questions that lie at the intersection of science, civics and society.”

—Brian Helmuth, Francis Choi and David Sittenfeld


Here, Helmuth, Choi and Sittenfeld discuss their project, “Science Center Public Forums: Community Engagement for Environmental Literacy, Improved Resilience, and Decision-Making,” its preliminary findings, and how it translates into the classroom.


Q. The New York Times recently reported that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016, marking the first time that temperatures have blown past the previous record of global warming data three years in a row. Yet, many still believe climate change is not real. Your visualizations are indicators that the planet is undergoing big changes, so do you hope they will serve as a wake-up call to climate change deniers and policymakers? What’s the main goal of the project?

A. Helping people to understand how global climate change affects their daily lives is a major goal of this project, as is helping them to understand that we are not totally helpless in the face of change. Some adaptation is possible, but in order to be effective, it needs to accommodate the needs, priorities and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders. While some will continue to deny the reality of climate change even as it continues to play out in front of their eyes, we are more concerned with people who may feel apathetic or helpless in the face of such large-scale changes.

A major message is that yes, climate change will continue to have enormous impacts, but we can be smart about preparing for the changes that will occur even as we work to reduce their magnitude by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Participants in our forums will learn about potential social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities from weather and climate related hazards, including ones that are likely to be exacerbated by changing climate. But more importantly, the project also will engage the participants in thinking of the tradeoffs of a number of proposed resilience strategies.

For example, here in Boston, participants will think about the environmental or economic consequences of large-scale coastal armoring to protect coastal infrastructures or residences from the threat of sea-level rise, or proposed policies for stormwater management or green infrastructures to build resilience against extreme precipitation events. In Phoenix, later this fall, participants will think about the potential impacts proposed policies such as desalinization or curtailment plans for water districts in times of extreme drought, and changing the urban landscape to minimize the impacts of heat waves.

A major goal of the project is to get everyday people thinking as decision-makers, considering scientific evidence, the perspectives of others and the complex decisions that policymakers face, while promoting respectful dialogue about policies to respond to the challenges presented by a changing climate to help increase community resilience. By using scenarios reflecting real decisions and impacts faced by a range of stakeholders, including people from all walks of life, we hope our participants will think more holistically about the potential impacts of climate change as well as other kinds of hazards upon their lives, and on the environment.


Q. What have you found thus far? Were you surprised by your findings?

A. We’ve spent a lot of time looking both at scientific reports, such as the National Climate Assessment as well as at resilience plans from cities around the country and the world, to learn about the vulnerabilities cities and regions face over the coming decades and what they’re planning to do about it. It’s empowering to see that smart people around the world are thinking about these problems in creative ways. For example, new communications technologies have allowed communities to drastically improve social connectivity in times of emergency, and planners around the world have designed floating buildings or bridges in places where frequent flooding is likely to increase.


Q. Where are climate change threats most pervasive, and what does that mean for the planet and humans?

A. Reports based on a mountain of scientific evidence, like the National Climate Assessment, tell us that over time we’ll experience more extreme weather patterns: intense downpours here in the Northeast, more frequent periods of drought in places like the Southwest, and accelerating sea level rise and increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves across the globe. There are still unknowns about what the impacts will be of carbon dioxide levels never before experienced in human history, but we do know that continuing to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is like poking a giant sleeping beast with a sharp stick. We also know that global climate change plays out in highly variable ways at local levels—increased precipitation in some locations and drought in others. Recent evidence suggests that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of all large bodies of water on Earth, so we, along with locations like the Mediterranean Sea, are going to experience significant impacts on coastal communities and ecosystems in the not so distant future.

In general, however, because the impacts of climate change are not uniform, it is still very challenging to forecast at local levels. This means that in a lot of cases, urban planners and policymakers must consider a possible range of outcomes and prioritize the needs of different stakeholders. This is critical work to translate that into effective policies for increasing effective resilience. The danger, as sadly is often the case, is that the worse impacts will be felt by those least equipped to deal with them. Ensuring environmental justice for the world’s poor is absolutely critical.


Q. How does this project translate into the classroom?

A. We have previously used the museum’s forum materials in courses for students and public events held at Northeastern. For example, a preliminary version of the sea level rise module for this project has been used in both Helmuth’s “Urban Coastal Sustainability Course” and in conservation biology courses with professor Randall Hughes as templates for students to create engagement materials around their own coursework and/or areas of research. We created and included virtual reality tours and augmented photos in our NOAA-sponsored project as a means to immerse, excite and empower audiences and to facilitate empathy towards others being impacted. Two Masters students in Helmuth’s lab are exploring how the use of these materials may help K-12 students to better understand the impacts of climate change in coastal environments, and to help students living far away from the coast to gain empathy for those living on the coast, and vice versa.

Approximately 10 percent of the participants in the eight forums at science centers around the country will be educators. We will create ways for these educators to adapt their materials for use in their classrooms. Another idea we’re hoping to make happen will be to have students in local schools gather citizen science data about the kinds of climate change impacts and vulnerabilities participants will be discussing, so that we get a better sense of what resilience plans need to address going forward.


Published On: February 7, 2017 |
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