By Amal Ahmed
It’s easy to talk about how climate change will alter Earth’s surface in the century to come. It will raise sea levels, flood cities, and set off droughts. As this month’s dire UN report shows, decades of climate science have made the worldwide dangers of human-caused warming unambiguous.
Yet it’s far harder to talk about how these changes will play out locally. No two places will experience climate change identically: The coasts of Borneo and the shores of Great Britain, for example, will see the land and weather transform in vastly different ways. But people living in the United Kingdom have a far better idea of what those changes will look like.
Call it climate science’s data gap. When studying the Earth’s climate, researchers must understand the past before they can understand the future. But across huge swaths of the world, scientists simply don’t have the data that they need—especially the kind of in-depth, long-term observations that can place current weather in context—to understand that past.
These problems are particularly acute for countries in the global South. In 2015, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change projected how climate change would affect temperature and precipitation values on each continent. In Africa, Asia, and South America, it rated more than 40 percent of its own predictions to be “low confidence.”
The catalog of places that suffer worst from the climate data gap is not entirely arbitrary. Despite sharing a history of colonization by Europeans, for example, the Indian subcontinent tends to have much better records than Africa.
“It mattered to [the British empire] that they had good data” from India, says Amir Jina, an environmental and developmental economist at the University of Chicago. “Because agricultural products were such a big component of the income from [the colony], weather data was very important. So the British put in place this data-collection infrastructure in their colonies.”
Of course, this did not make the British any better stewards of the continent. Colonial officials may have implemented the scientific apparatus to collect weather data and crop records, but they still sought environmental and social control over India. Their bounty of data did not stop them from acting to the deliberate detriment of locals, exporting millions of pounds of rice out of the colony during periods of famine.
“A lot of places in Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s the opposite story,” Jina told me. “[Some of the continent] was colonized during the scramble for Africa—and so it mattered that colonial officials knew where gold was or the mines were, to extract it,” but not so much that they monitored fluctuations in the weather.
Collecting good data is also expensive, particularly if the country in question lacks the financial and institutional resources, Jina added.
Continue reading at The Atlantic…