Climate Change Science, GIS, and Whole Earth Systems

Global climate change is a difficult, complex, politically charged, and vitally important issue. Yet from a knowledge perspective, we are at a distinct disadvantage: at this point in time, we still do not have a clear idea of everything we need to know in order to address the problem in a measured, rational, and above all, scientific manner.

When you think about the multitude of issues surrounding climate change science—from root causes to resultant impacts—geography is clearly an elemental factor in the equation. Every aspect of climate change affects or is affected by geography, be it at a global, regional, or local level. As a tool for helping us to better understand such geographies, GIS is the single most powerful integrating tool for inventorying, analyzing, and ultimately managing this extremely complex problem.

A GIS-based approach called “Whole Earth Systems” provides a framework for understanding and addressing the entire breadth of climate change science issues in a holistic manner. What do we mean by “Whole Earth Systems”? Scientists have long classified various phenomena into logical groupings or “systems.” These classifications have helped greatly to advance the understanding of component physical, biological, and social systems. While advancing the understanding of each of these systems individually is vitally important, ultimately we need to bring all of these systems together, to understand how they are interrelated and dependent upon one other.

Whole Earth Systems science offers an opportunity to advance the science and understanding of climate change by providing a framework for a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, integrated view of our planetary system. Aggregating complex physical, biological, and social data and models within a unified framework will give us single view of the whole Earth system and provide us with the tools to manage—and ultimately design—our future in the most effective, efficient, and morally defensible way.