These Maps Show How Big Data Can Fight Climate Change

New maps released Tuesday illustrate the toll climate change and pollution are taking on several communities in Los Angeles, many of the same areas that also hold the greatest potential for clean energy investment. The Los Angeles Solar and Efficiency Report (LASER) is the result of a partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund and UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. The groups say their work is a prime example of how big data can be used to engage citizens in the challenges and opportunities associated with climate change right in their own neighborhoods.

While climate change will drive up temperatures in Los Angeles, a particular concern for at-risk communities already burdened by pollution, the analysis found major potential for solar and energy efficiency projects. Realizing just ten percent of the city’s untapped rooftop solar potential, for instance, would create 47,000 solar installation jobs and could reduce carbon pollution by nearly 2.5 million tons annually — the equivalent of taking more than half a million cars off the road every year.

Rising Temperatures

Rising greenhouse gas emissions will raise temperatures across the country and the Los Angeles area is poised to get a lot hotter in the coming years. Using an analysis done by UCLA climate expert Alex Hall, the first map shows L.A. area temperatures, projected to rise by an average of 4–5° Fahrenheit by mid-century. The number of extreme heat days — above 95° Fahrenheit — are set to triple in the urban core and downtown and quadruple in the valleys and areas of higher elevation.


Extreme heat is a serious health concern, particularly in urban areas where there are fewer trees to provide shade and more impervious surfaces like pavement and roofs. Blacks, Asians and Latinos are more likely to live in “urban heat islands” — areas most susceptible to the severe heat waves that will become more common with climate change — according to recent research from UC Berkeley. The trend not only presents a real threat to public health, but also places increased demand on resources.

A Heavy Toll On Disadvantaged Communities

The LASER maps show that L.A. County alone is home to 50 percent of California’s most vulnerable population. Examining data from 19 indicators related to pollution burden and population characteristics, the maps identified some 3.7 million people living in “communities disproportionately burdened by and vulnerable to multiple sources of pollution.”

The first to show major racial and economic differences in exposure to hazardous air pollution, a 2012 Yale University study found that areas with a greater concentration of poor and minority residents are more likely to breathe air with dangerous compounds. The study listed Los Angeles among the metropolitan areas with both a large population of low-income minorities and high levels of dangerous particles that are emitted by diesel engines, power plants, refineries.

Major Solar Potential

A silver lining to Los Angeles’ vulnerabilities is the area has tremendous potential for investment in rooftop solar and energy efficiency. The LASER analysis found that the city is currently leaving 97 to 98 of that potential untapped and that closing the gap just slightly could both drive job creation and reduce air pollution, particularly beneficial for several of the communities identified as socioeconomically and environmentally vulnerable.

Los Angeles County currently has the largest amount of installed solar capacity of any county in the state and with 1,400 installations on rooftops in disadvantaged communities, is working to improve vulnerable populations’ access to clean energy. Renters and residents living in multi-family developments are often shut out of the rooftop solar revolution but California has taken steps to change that, passing S.B. 43 last year, which allows customers of any of the three main utilities to purchase 100 percent clean energy for their home or business, regardless of whether they own it, and extending incentives for low-income households.


The team behind the LASER analysis said the goal of the data-driven mapping project is to help communities identify which projects might be most beneficial to their residents, something that will become particularly important as S.B. 535, passed in 2012, requires that at least 25 percent of the proceeds from the state’s cap-and-trade auction are dedicated to projects benefiting disadvantaged communities. In addition, the state’s most recent budget allocates $225 million for similar efforts that both work to lower emissions and create jobs in low-income areas.

Many of the Los Angeles communities already experiencing the disproportionate impact of pollution also happen to be areas with the highest job creation potential from solar and energy efficiency projects — by connecting all of the dots, the LASER team hopes to show how beneficial big data can be in the fight against climate change. The White House released a trove of data in March to help illustrate for the public the risks associated with climate change, part of its larger Climate Data Initiative. And the United Nations launched a similar initiative to gather data related to the economic impacts of climate change, intended to spur data-driven solutions.

By publicizing data on impacts like coastal flooding, these efforts seek to connect climate change, often an abstract and overwhelming phenomenon, to what people care about the most — their home. “We hope to help people internalize the risk and care,” said Rebecca Moore, founder of Google Earth Engine.