New tools, strategies help communities leverage climate data

the collaboratively-built climatedata.ca website offers high-resolution Canadian climate data

Communities can also use climate data as a “leveraging tool” to obtain funding for adaptation and resilience. Climatedata.ca graph.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on April 10, 2024.

By Gaye Taylor

When it comes to data-driven community action, “there are no numbers without stories, no stories without numbers,” participants heard during a recent Tamarack Institute webinar on building links between quantitative and local knowledge.

The panel discussion last March highlighted how local practitioners can use data to bring together diverse stakeholders and distinct knowledge bases.

Emma Poirier, a climate science and adaptation specialist at CLIMAtlantic, stressed the “contextualizing” power of data offered by community climate profiles. CLIMAtlantic creates short summaries or infographics of what a place is projected to look like in the future, factoring in specific features like precipitation or temperature, after determining what climate indices are most important to the community. While the projections are of the future, Poirier said the changes communities are already experiencing help create community confidence in the data sets. She gave the example of data-driven temperature projections that have helped health practitioners make decisions on heating and cooling systems and climate control infrastructure for their facilities.

Communities can also use climate data as a “leveraging tool” to obtain funding for adaptation and resilience, Poirier said, adding that success comes from starting with the issues and changes that people have already noticed and experienced.

Panelist Brittany Cormier, executive director at EOS Eco-Energy in Sackville, New Brunswick, traced her organization’s research on the adaptation planning needed [pdf] in southeastern New Brunswick to mitigate the health impacts linked with climate change. She said the extreme flood risk facing coastal New Brunswick makes climate data “harrowing” for many people—to the point of the numbers seeming unnecessary on the face of it.

“We don’t have to convince our community that the climate crisis is here,” she said. “It’s present and it’s happening.”

But at the same time, localized climate data is valuable to connect practitioners with the communities they serve, she added. It helps make sure that “as many of our local partners and stakeholders as possible are part of the conversation—and nobody’s getting left behind.”

Cormier stressed the importance of responding promptly and directly to community feedback, and ensuring that as many sectors and specialists are involved as possible.

She pointed to EOS’ work with the Chignecto Climate Change Collaborative, which itself brings together environmental specialists, emergency management experts, and municipal and provincial staffers and elected representatives. EOS serves the role of a coordinator in a situation where there is “no shortage of experts, but an extreme lack of coordination.”

Quantitative Meets Qualitative

One problem with data definitions and paradigms is the dominance of a Eurocentric worldview, said Kieran Maingot, the Tamarack Institute’s manager of communities, climate transition. Maingot asked Cormier and Poirier how they “incorporate or honour Indigenous knowledge” and work to decolonize “how we think about data and how we use it.”

Poirier recommended asking a series of questions before embarking on any action that involves data use: who is being served by that action, what assumptions are involved, what kinds of information are being included in or excluded from a data set, and how insights from differing knowledge systems could be incorporated.

Reflecting on community values is also important, she added, because those values can “help us figure out what to do with the data—what we want to protect or to build resilience around.”

Maingot recalled a saying from a colleague: “There are no numbers without stories, and no stories without numbers.” Those words help “tether” the quantitative to the qualitative, they added, as the qualitative contains the intentions and priorities of communities.

Cormier said she’d seen “a gap between the community and science in general” through her work in the environmental non-profit sector. “Some people find scientific processes and the rigour of academia exclusionary and not really capable of integrating local knowledge,” she told participants.

Nurturing “networks of knowledge,” rather than allowing the persistence of “segregated specialties and pockets of expertise,” can bridge the community-science gap, Cormier suggested,. She cited the Indigenous-led Fort Folly Habitat Recovery Program for Atlantic salmon as an example of how “the future is bright” when local knowledge is brought together with scientific data.

Data for Community Action

Asked by a webinar attendee about climate data tools and software for communities, Poirier said the collaboratively-built climatedata.ca website offers high-resolution Canadian data, with the option to search by narrow or broad regions. It includes climate impact data for sectors like agriculture, transport, health, and buildings.

For data on climate equity, Maingot recommended HealthyPlan.City, a visual mapping software where users can find data on 12 equity indicators in the built environment, including air pollution, healthy food outlets, tree canopy cover, transit stops, and educational and cultural facilities. It also details 13 “vulnerable populations” like children, first-generation immigrants, subsets of low-income groups, older adults, and visible minorities, across 125 municipalities.

Cormier and Poirier added that a climate lens can be applied to “a lot of things” outside the immediate sector. So data can help open climate conversations with a wide range of groups, even if their mandates lie in other areas.

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