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Climate change scientists want you to visualize your house under water

Climate change impacts really hit home when they, well, hit home.

People in California see fiery red clouds. Floods strike whole neighborhoods in Louisiana and subways in New York. But what if you’re not yet seeing it first hand?

A new website can make climate change exist right on your doorstep virtually.

Sasha Luccioni is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal and lead researcher on the project called “This Climate Does Not Exist.” It uses artificial intelligence to superimpose the effects of climate change — such as flooding, fire and smog — on pictures of your own home. It’s a product of the Mila Institute.

The algorithm uses the same technology as deepfakes to generate new content from scratch instead of doctoring a photo of your apartment building or favorite landmark. They’ve trained the algorithm to create a 3D representation of the image that projects climate change effects onto it as realistically as possible, Luccioni says.

“We essentially gave it a bunch of images of normal street scenes and normal places and then places hit by climate change,” she says.

Luccioni has searched tons of addresses using the system and finds the most jarring photos are those of beloved landmarks submerged in water or surrounded by toxic wildfire smoke. Seeing these devastating images of Times Square in New York City or Arc de Triomphe in Paris remain seared in her memory, she says.

People have become “a bit blasé” to pictures of places destroyed by climate change when they aren’t personally impacted, she says. “We realized that seeing your own house or places that you really care about really carries a different message than just seeing somebody else’s place,” she says.

The project’s title, “This Climate Does Not Exist,” comes from an internet trend that started a few years ago. The name is a play on taking climate action now before these disasters — pictured on your own home — happen.

“The thing is, there’s a gap between when we can take action, when we actually have a chance of stopping global warming at a decent degree and these consequences,” she says. “So when this climate will exist — it’ll be too late.”

The project also encourages people to talk to their friends, families and colleagues in order to make climate change action a “collective phenomenon” that influences our day-to-day choices, no matter how big or small.

For Luccioni, who once worked in the corporate AI world, it meant working on a tool to help computer engineers lessen their carbon footprint on the job. Named Code Carbon, the tool uses a small computer program in the background when an engineer runs a code.

At the end, Code Carbon spits out an estimate of how much carbon was emitted from running that code by looking at time, energy and hardware used. The estimate can be compared to other numbers like miles driven in a car in order to compare the carbon magnitude, she says.

Ideally, Luccioni would love to see “This Climate Does Not Exist” presented at COP26 in order to visualize percentages of warming, she says.

“I think putting an image to these numbers could be very impactful to actually triggering change because that’s the issue: These COPs happen and people talk about it and they debate and then not much gets done in the long run,” she says. “So I’m hoping that images can kind of be a game changer in that sense.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a project aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis. WBUR is one of 400+ news organizations that have committed to a week of heightened coverage around the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Check out all our coverage here.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A visualization of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris under water. (Courtesy)
A visualization of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris under water. (Courtesy)

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