Creating a geospatial action plan for
climate change

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

At the United Nations’ COP21 this week in Paris, diplomats and delegates are focused on global climate change. The intended outcome of the conference is to establish a new universal agreement that would, for the first time, commit nearly every country to enact new policies to keep global warming below 2°C.

While the conversations in Paris are largely geared towards finding consensus for long-term goals and funding, the more complex question is how (and if) we can stop the inevitable. In this regard, geospatial technologies, and high resolution satellite imagery in particular, cannot be overlooked as essential assets in combating climate change. If I had the opportunity to offer closing remarks to all the diplomats and delegates in Paris this week, they would probably sound something like this…

Mr. Hollande, Mr. Secretary-General, thank you for the opportunity to address such a distinguished convening of leaders. While the last two weeks have been pivotal in terms of rallying support and resources to stem the tides of climate change, we must not lose time in getting to the actual work of reducing our carbon footprint.

We’re 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 offers valuable insights into complex interactions. With data layers and modeling, geospatial helps detect and decouple signals of global environmental changes in various ecosystems. Geospatial 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.

Geospatial technologies and high resolution satellite imagery can help better prepare, respond and adapt to climate change. This image from Gunja, Croatia was taken on May 21, 2014 after three days of torrential rain that amounted to what is normally three months of rainfall.
Geospatial technologies and high resolution satellite imagery can help better prepare, respond and adapt to climate change. This image from Gunja, Croatia was taken on May 21, 2014 after three days of torrential rain that amounted to what is normally three months of rainfall.

At both a conceptual and a practical level, geospatial provides 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.

Despite the promise of geospatial, these technologies, and satellite imagery in particular, are largely untapped resources in the fight against climate change. First and foremost, nothing is harder to argue against than visual proof. High resolution satellite imagery is an ideal tool in the fight against cynicism. And there is cynicism on multiple levels – disbelief in climate change itself, in the causes of climate change, and in our ability to do anything about it. 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 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 Earth that are otherwise too abstract. By focusing the conversation on what’s relevant to people and how it affects their specific areas of responsibility, imagery and geospatial information make an unwieldy issue more actionable.

Being responsible stewards of the billions of dollars already committed towards climate change means acting quickly. Climate change is the driver, while geospatial technologies are a tool to help understand how climate change may impact lives, cities, food supplies, and more. Geospatial technologies provide spatial analysis that helps inform decision-making and policy-making by helping people understand the potential impacts, as well as their options for the most effective actions. Geospatial tools help us measure, monitor, and hopefully adapt to the effects of climate change.

How we use imagery and 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, we know that we must tackle these issues holistically, not just as individual countries. Moreover, we recognize the strong linkages between climate change, sustainable development, poverty, renewable energy and so on. 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? By providing a strong analytical framework for policy decisions and coordination, geospatial enables our best chances in what we know will be a long and arduous fight.

Once we leave Paris, we must begin to articulate that enduring framework for progress. We don’t need a stopgap solution but a strategic way forward with the appropriate approach. For a long-term action plan, you need tools that are proven and reliable for decades to come. That’s why leveraging satellite imagery is mission critical. Our satellites will be orbiting the Earth for decades, providing accurate and consistent information in our battle against climate change. But that information is only as valuable as those who are willing to use it. DigitalGlobe is ready to get to work. Let’s be transformational before it’s too late.

Ready to join us? Let’s collaborate on a game plan together.