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Creating a Geospatial Action Plan for Climate Change

Nordenskjold Basin in Antarctica, March 12, 2014. Satellite imagery enables monitoring of remote locations over time to assess and measure the impacts of climate change

The world is fighting climate change on a number of fronts that would benefit substantially from geospatial technology. From extreme weather events to food production to natural resource management, geospatial data offers valuable insights into complex interactions. With data layers and modeling, a geospatial approach helps detect and decouple signals of global environmental changes in various ecosystems. Geospatial data also supports the evaluation of policy options for regional development plans and how best to use natural resources. In addition to resource management, these geospatial techniques are ideally suited for analyzing food systems and value chains across time and space. There are many ways in which geospatial data can help confront climate change, but, to be effective, it has to help break down sectoral and geographic silos. 


Framework for actionable 
decision making

At both a conceptual and a practical level, geospatial data and technologies provide a framework for actionable decision making that allows for the integration of data, information and assessments originating from a large number of interconnected sources. Location links the myriad of physical, biological, and socioeconomic data in a way that allows us to understand past, present and future dynamics. This is the essence of location intelligence, where location is the common thread across seemingly disparate information, making it more actionable and useful.   

Despite the promise of these technologies, and satellite imagery in particular, these resources are not fully leveraged in the fight against climate change. Since the effects of climate change are long-term, dispersed and cross many kinds of boundaries, it is challenging to compel people to act. Imagery, for instance, provides irrefutable evidence of disappearing islands, melting ice caps and increasingly intense weather events. Geospatial technologies bring all these information together and highlight realities on our planet that are otherwise too abstract. By focusing the conversation on what’s relevant to people and how it affects their livelihoods, imagery and geospatial information make an unwieldy issue more actionable. 

Who is using geospatial tools is also important. Climate change is a challenge that knows no borders. It engenders issues that span countries and regions, demanding a coordinated response that transcends national biases. With mosaics of imagery covering entire continents, national borders are just another data layer to reference for policymaking and coordination, and the effects of climate change can be analyzed and understood beyond the confines of administrative boundaries. And that cannot be understated. To truly fight climate change, these issues must be tackled as a global community, not just as individual countries. Geospatial technology, and remote sensing in particular, enables monitoring and analysis on both macro and micro scales. Very high-resolution imagery provides the granularity needed to thoroughly understand local situations, while the combination of sensors provides the needed global coverage for larger scale analyses.

Climate change and sustainable development are interlinked

In addition to the local and global aspects of climate change, countries need to recognize the strong linkages between climate change and sustainable development not only in diplomatic consensus but also in any intended interventions. Imagery allows us to understand the intersections of resiliency and sustainability through all lenses. It helps answer essential questions such as: Where are communities now? What will communities look like in the future? What do the most vulnerable need to thrive? 

The relationship between climate change response and sustainable development underscores the importance of the global consensus reached last year in Paris. Climate change was on the forefront of the global agenda and rightfully so. However, it is important to note that these conversations were framed within the context of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. Aligning a climate change action plan with sustainable development recognizes that trade-offs and synergies abound and must be considered holistically. The interactions among climate change adaptation, mitigation and development occur on localized and global scales and almost always across multiple stressors.

Comprehensive climate change strategies will leverage geospatial information to address the complexity and interrelatedness of these challenges. By providing a strong analytical framework for policy decisions and coordination, geospatial can enable robust strategies that involve all necessary stakeholders and encompass all sectors.

 To truly create a comprehensive climate change strategy and plan of action, policymakers need to understand the wide ranging applications of geospatial technology. The use of geospatial often gets relegated to common use cases like land management or infrastructure planning; however, geospatial analytics can provide answers across sectors. For example, in agriculture, new varieties are a typical adaptation response. While the breeding of a new crop variety does not directly require geospatial data, there are a number of geospatial questions that need to be answered. What are the agro-ecologies in the community where yields are low? How much seed could you expect to sell in a given area? How would a variety get from the certified seed producer to the agro-dealer? A geospatial analysis can tell you what traits need to be bred in new varieties and what the value chain looks like in a given area.

That way, scientists know exactly what to breed, seed companies know exactly how much to produce, and farmers know which agro-dealers to buy from and which markets to sell at. Thus, taking a geospatial approach provides the prerequisite location intelligence to inform interventions and ensure climate change outcomes are realized. 

Getting to a comprehensive strategy will not be easy. It means getting creative about how geospatial data and technologies are used and ensuring countries have the capacity to leverage such resources. These are just a couple of the challenges that need to be faced to continue making progress after the diplomatic success in Paris.

Being responsible stewards of the billions of dollars already committed toward climate change requires quick action to create a strategy and game-plan. In the meantime, climate change will continue to drive increasing instability and vulnerability until our interventions are proven effective and scalable. Having viable tools like remote sensing and other geospatial technologies at our disposal is an advantage we cannot afford to ignore