Climate Change Vocabulary: Global Versus Local

This is part of an ongoing series about the words and concepts of climate change.

Climate change is often thought of as a global problem. However, the effects of climate change are ultimately localized, with each locality being affected differently. While a lot of time and energy has been devoted to covering global developments, it’s worth taking a closer look at what climate change means on smaller scales.

Climate change started percolating into the global consciousness due to a global increase in surface air temperatures (global warming, perhaps you’ve heard of it?). Showing the problem in a global light was an important step to get the ball rolling towards developing a better understanding of climate change and how to deal with it.

However, all that global data comes from local observation stations. While there’s an overall upward trend in global temperature, not all regions are being affected equally. Places like the Arctic have warmed much more rapidly than the rest of the globe.

Of course climate change is more than just an increase in temperature. There are a number of other pieces of the system being affected such as precipitation, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and migratory patterns. Again, many of these factors are being affected to different degrees in different regions.

Places in sub-Saharan Africa and the American Southwest are drying up much faster than surrounding regions. Even sea level rise is different across the globe despite the connectedness of oceans. For example, western Indonesia has experienced much more rapid sea level rise than Australia over the past 50 years.

All of these unique local changes have occurred because the effects of climate change interact with other natural processes. Certain local climate patterns existed long before we started pumping carbon dioxide from the ground into the air. Now those patterns are being altered to account for the energy imbalance we’ve created. From the Indian monsoon to the Atlantic hurricane season, climate change will likely rearrange these local, seasonal weather patterns.

One of the more crucial areas of climate research going on now is downscaling models to better predict these changes. Downscaling is pretty much what it sounds like: getting models to better predict climate on a finer scale. Currently, models do a pretty good job at forecasting global trends at coarse resolutions. Improving their ability to forecast local conditions at seasonal or shorter timescales will make them infinitely more useful to policymakers and local communities.

This is part of the paradox of climate change. Mitigating it through reducing emissions will be a global effort. In the case of adaptation, though, a different perspective is needed. We need to downscale our ideas about dealing with the effects of climate change. That means looking at local data and knowledge to craft solutions. That way, local communities won’t be left high and dry. Or low and wet.