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Harnessing the power of data in the fight against climate change


Written by
Mathilde Frot

From droughts to shrinking glaciers, the ripple effects of climate change can already be felt around the world. We spoke to senior economics lecturer Dr Eileen Tipoe about the important role of data and statistics in the crucial fight against this threat, and why learners should consider studying this area.

Collecting data on climate change via touch screen

“Immediate and deep” cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions are urgently needed across every sector to keep temperatures from rising beyond 1.5°C, the target set by world leaders in 2015.

That was one of the key findings unveiled in a report earlier in 2022 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a top United Nations body responsible for assessing the science on global warming.

But with the “right policies, infrastructure and technology,” emissions could fall by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050, the report also found.

As world leaders face growing pressure on this issue, data experts have a crucial role to play in influencing public policy.

In addition to measuring the extent of climate change, “data can be used to paint a picture of what the world would look like if we didn't act, to tell very powerful stories that can encourage people to take action,” explains Dr Eileen Tipoe, senior lecturer in economics at Queen Mary University of London.

Dr Tipoe teaches a beginners’ online course on climate data analytics entitled ‘Doing Economics: Measuring Climate Change’ launched recently by the University of London with University College London (UCL) and CORE, its open-access teaching project.

It can be easy to feel out of your depth when coming across media coverage of climate change or encountering a statistic on the topic, admits Dr Tipoe, who is also a staff economist for UCL’s CORE project.

This course equips learners with the tools that they need to understand the data that's being presented in the news and interpret common types of charts so that they can have a more informed perspective on this topic, so when they read about climate change or other kinds of events in the news, they can feel more confident when discussing it with other people or participating in debates.

“And they're also more likely to avoid common pitfalls when they interpret data like correlation and causation.”

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has a strong focus on situating any learning within a real-world context, says Dr Tipoe.

“Students work with the latest data on climate change, downloaded from NASA and other reputable sources so that they can see the practical relevance of the skills that they're learning.

“We teach them how to make certain graphs in Excel or to calculate certain summary statistics using real-world data, so it's not just a toy data set where we made up some numbers,” she says.

It is designed to help anyone with knowledge of basic mathematical operations such as fractions and 2D graphs, how to handle, interpret and communicate data – a highly desirable skillset as the world becomes increasingly digital.

"There's a lot more data out there that we, or standard computer software, can analyse. So we need huge computers. Knowing how to process it and what to pick out is a key skill, which we do discuss in the course,” she adds.

The MOOC offers learners the chance to develop a range of skills that could be useful across many disciplines.

It's an introductory level course, so for anybody who is wondering ‘how can I use Excel to analyse data’ or thinking about doing courses that could be a bit more quantitative, it would be a very good introduction to this area. It would also be useful for anyone interested in public policy because that involves using and pulling together data and qualitative sources of information, says Dr Tipoe.

The MOOC is delivered entirely online, allowing learners to work at their own pace, fitting their studies around their schedule, or follow the recommended four-week structure.

The courses, which requires around four hours of study each week, also gives participants the option of completing automatically graded quizzes to assess their understanding of key concepts.

Don’t wait! Find out more and enrol for Doing Economics: Measuring Climate Change.