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Increasing our chances that the future is good
We built a resource that needed to exist—here’s how it’s going two years after launch
March 29, 2024

At Probable Futures, our team is guided by the philosophy that we aim to “increase our chances that the future is good.” This is intentionally non-specific because we started the initiative with enough humility to know that we could not single-handedly prepare the entire world for the instability of climate change, but we had enough confidence in our ideas, skills, and  networks to believe that we had a good chance of influencing the odds in a positive direction.

While this mission is ambitious—and accordingly impossible to measure precisely—we have had strategic goals from the outset that are clear and observable: democratizing science and building societal climate literacy. What do these goals have to do with increasing the chances that the future is good? We believe that global climate action will be more effective if those taking action have a basic literacy about our climate and how it is changing, as well as a mindset and tools for mitigating risk…ultimately leading to better outcomes. 

As Executive Director, it’s my job to take an objective look at outcomes and evaluate whether or not we are making progress toward our goals. For the first time, we have enough experience to do this. Because, while Probable Futures has technically existed for four years now, two of those years were dedicated entirely to researching, designing, building, and iterating upon the tools and offerings that you see at today. 

I marked the juncture from building mode to sharing mode in last year’s director’s letter, and I told you: “Probable Futures’s suite of climate literacy tools and resources is ready to meet this moment. Our team’s task from here is to harness the momentum, find channels to disseminate our resources, engage audiences with it, and ultimately, turn that engagement into deep understanding and action.” 

So, let’s inventory. Here’s what a few years, a few generous donations, and the collective efforts of around a dozen people can accomplish: 

We built a resource that needed to exist, and it’s good 

Spencer Glendon and I set out with the idea that the world needed access to world-class climate data and educational resources that would help people understand the stable climate on which civilization was built, the changes that have already happened, and the climate futures that lie ahead. Turning a good set of ideas into an excellent product takes grit, tenacity, and dedication. Getting recognition for its quality and contribution is certainly not guaranteed. But this is an area where we have seen little ambiguity: The Probable Futures climate handbook and climate maps together have been widely recognized as a high-quality and useful resource. Our digital platform has received awards from the Webby Anthem Awards and Communication Arts magazine; it’s been featured by Fast Company, Bloomberg, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Front Matter magazine, and more; it is a recommended resource by the U.S. Government’s Climate Resilience Toolkit, and a suggested classroom resource by SubjectToClimate as well as the state of New Jersey’s climate core curriculum, and appears on dozens of other climate change “recommended resource” sites. Faculty at prestigious universities are using it in their undergraduate and graduate classrooms.

But as we work to democratize climate science and build societal climate literacy, making something good is simply not good enough. We need to convince people to spend time with our resources, learn if those resources have helped them better understand climate change, and then learn if that better understanding led to action they wouldn’t have otherwise taken. In other words, climate literacy is an essential and foundational step that is often several steps removed from the action we hope to see, which can make measuring its role in that action a challenge. 

Climate literacy is an essential and foundational step that is often several steps removed from the action we hope to see, which can make measuring its role in that action a challenge.

Still, we have worked to find indicators that help us to understand what kind of impact our climate literacy platform is having on the audiences that interact with it. Here are some relevant things we’ve found:

  • Over 114,000 unique visitors have used the site since it launched in 2021
  • 96% of surveyed visitors find the site useful, and 92% said that they would be disappointed if they could no longer use our interactive maps
  • Visitors spend an average of 14 minutes on the maps per visit (!!)
  • Visitors come from 100 countries
  • Users represent a cross-section of disciplines and the economy: education, energy, entertainment, finance, government, insurance, marketing, technology, telecommunications, and more

Here are a few quotes from users that resonated with us:

“As a former Chief Resilience Officer in my city, I find this information timely and useful.”

“I used your site to reduce the feeling of uncertainty and give myself a sense of control.”

“Your site helped me to visualize climate change impact in regions where my clients have operations.”

“I am sharing your website and articles with my investor clients so they have solid information to make informed decisions about their investments, and even their charitable gifts.”

We’ve also received plenty of constructive feedback, which has helped us improve our resources along the way. Each month, we learn more about how people and organizations are applying their climate literacy, and these learnings inspire improvements, new data products, and new content streams. In fact, in the past six months, a new set of online offerings including explainers and  thought leadership articles, along with a nine-part email series to orient readers to the climate handbook, helped to increase our monthly site traffic by 25%. 

This “evaluate and iterate” process is core to our operations and organizational culture, and you can expect our resources to evolve and improve for as long as we exist. In this spirit, stay tuned in the coming months for a new series that illustrates how to apply our maps and use them to assess risk in locations around the world. 

We are advancing a conversation on adaptation and resiliency that is happening in too few places

My colleagues and I frequently speak at large conferences in a variety of industries, from real estate, investment, energy, and insurance, to entertainment, arts and culture, and education. You might be surprised to learn, though, that we are often the only speakers at such conferences talking about physical climate change, and how we can prepare for and adapt to more unstable weather and its implications for our communities, businesses, and industries. This can be the case even when these conferences and events are focused on sustainability or even “climate.” 

In these environments, the vast majority of conversations focus on topics such as the energy transition, carbon trading schemes, emissions monitoring and reporting, the circular economy, etc. All are important and necessary topics, and luckily, there are ways to integrate these new processes into orthodox systems and business structures. (e.g. a utility company can switch from non-renewable to renewable sources without having to overhaul its entire operating model.) However, adaptation and resiliency is an entirely new set of activities for which communities, governments, companies, and financial markets have few existing systems or processes. 

Adaptation and resiliency is an entirely new set of activities for which communities, governments, companies, and financial markets have few existing systems or processes.

Said differently, adaptation and resiliency is an effort to create human-built systems that replicate what the stable climate used to give us for free. Consider two examples: a sea wall that wasn’t needed previously, or an irrigation system on a farm where past patterns of rainfall were reliable. 

As a society, we still have many questions to ask and answer about how we will adapt to a changing climate: How do we pay for something like a sea wall when it doesn’t return revenue? How do we plan for the inevitable increased price of producing crops? Is adaptation all about new infrastructure, or do we need new social norms too? How do we measure whether a location is resilient or not? What role does insurance play in all of this?

To better contribute to these questions (and others like it) we are thrilled to be welcoming a new staff member on board as our Director of Climate Adaptation Strategy: Nabig Chaudhry. With support from Harvard Business School’s Leadership Fellows Program, Nabig will conduct research, publish case studies, and recommend new products and services meant to serve the growing adaptation and resiliency needs in the private and public sectors. 

What we learn from Nabig’s work will be channeled into our partnerships as well as our efforts to share stories and resources publicly. You can expect to see and hear us taking a more active public role, and in this vein, we are already getting started. This HBS podcast featuring Spencer and me dives deeper into work we are doing with faculty on risk and adaptation frameworks for businesses, and you will see some familiar themes and concepts about climate stability and civilization in this recent adaptation report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

We have provided live learning experiences for over 10,000 people in one year—and we’re preparing for a lot more 

Our original intention for Probable Futures was to exclusively develop online-based, self-guided learning journeys, compelling videos and graphics, and data visualization tools. But along the way, we were increasingly being invited to bring those resources into classrooms, conference rooms, and convenings, in the forms of live speaking programs, executive education workshops, and advising sessions for companies, organizations, and governments. This kind of work became a core offering alongside our digital and widely accessible online tools and resources. Why? We could see the effectiveness of live learning in prompting “aha” moments for people where addressing climate change becomes a higher priority in their lives or work. 

Here’s one of my favorite examples of this: In 2023, we conducted a workshop with regional leaders of United Way, a global nonprofit focusing on health, education, and economic mobility at the community level. (This was one of the first engagements with this partner, and I am excited to say that together we have bigger plans afoot.) During the discussion portion of the workshop, Kevin Middleton, the President of United Way of Kentucky, detailed the climate-related disasters that communities in his state have faced in recent years and said to us and the rest of the group, “Preparation and readiness can mean the difference between life and death. I now see that I can’t adequately prepare our organizations and their communities for disaster or help to mitigate the impact of these events without predictive tools and climate literacy resources such as those you provide.” This is precisely the outcome we aim to achieve in every single one of our interactions with users and partners. Kevin is a leader who has responsibility for supporting vulnerable communities in a climate-vulnerable location, and after building some climate literacy, he now sees monitoring the potential impacts of a changing climate as a critical part of his job. Today, Kevin says he is incorporating this awareness by building a data-informed disaster resiliency plan that can be localized with United Way leaders in his state.

We have lots of stories like these, in vastly different kinds of communities. Participants in our live learning sessions often reach out afterward, and sometimes repeatedly for months or even years afterward, seeking our input on questions, ideas, or challenges related to taking action on climate change in their community. This kind of engagement gives us a front-row seat to observe what works, what doesn’t, and what obstacles people are running into as they apply their climate literacy and work toward making their communities more resilient. From there, we can incorporate those learnings across our platform and offerings. 

Probable Futures speaking engagements booked for 2024 are likely to far exceed last year’s numbers. There is a real demand for our programming, and we are ready to meet that demand. 

Over the next year, you can expect to see us significantly expand these live learning experiences on our own and in collaboration with partners. In fact, the speaking engagements already booked for 2024 are likely to far exceed last year’s numbers. Clearly, there is a real demand for this kind of programming, and we are ready to meet that demand. 

People are building new tools with our open-source infrastructure

From the outset, we knew that truly democratizing climate science would mean giving away as much as we can, in as many ways as we can. And while we strive to make our interactive maps as useful as possible to as many kinds of people as possible, we recognize that people and communities are likely to want to use climate science in their own specific and distinctive ways. We envisioned NGOs, companies, and governments creating their own customized versions of Probable Futures, and we hoped to see the creative minds in the software development community experiment with and build things that we might never imagine on our own. I am proud to report that we are starting to see these visions come to fruition. Here are some examples:

  • Aravo, a market-leading third-party risk management software solution with over 440,000 corporate users, is partnering with Probable Futures to integrate climate risk data into its product. Currently, we are collaborating with Aravo and its clients to build useful functionality around our data and the insights the software provides, allowing supply chain and risk managers to better understand, assess, and address climate risk from the same platform that they use to manage all other kinds of third-party risk.
  • Led by a cohort of curious and talented developers, there will soon be a beta version of an AI chatbot powered by Probable Futures data, content, and themes. Like all early-stage chatbots, there are bugs, kinks, and bizarre curiosities, but it is gratifying to see people with expertise and integrity experiment and develop a tool that could be useful to those grappling with how to prepare for climate change. We’re grateful for the exploratory work and demonstrations of the possibility of impact that DataKind, an organization focused on using data science and AI to leverage good social outcomes, has done to advance Probable Futures’ thinking in this space.
  • En-ROADS, the online simulator from Climate Interactive that provides policymakers, educators, businesses, the media, and the public with the ability to test and explore cross-sector climate solutions, is exploring how Probable Futures maps might bring a new kind of fidelity to their simulations. Together, our two tools can clarify the choices we have to make in how we power our world, and the climate consequences of those choices. 

To those who don’t come from the software developer community, it may sound like a simple process to open up our back-end infrastructure and data to those who might want to use it, but doing it well requires immense skill. I am quite proud of and grateful to our Beirut-based team members at Speedlane, who are continually and thoughtfully designing and improving these systems, writing clear documentation, and building interfaces that encourage and enable experimentation and innovation. I have no doubt that we will see many more products “in the wild” powered by Probable Futures in the months and years to come. 

Our focus on climate risk is increasingly relevant 

I’ve written recently about the kinds of skepticism we experienced when we launched an initiative centered around communicating about climate risk. There were concerns that people would find it negative, depressing, overwhelming, or esoteric. But we were confident that, if designed and communicated well, people would find it clarifying, hopeful, and practical. Today, we see important signs that support our hypothesis. In fact, we have the conviction that framing the climate conversation around risk is more important and relevant today than ever before. 

An unfortunate reason for this is the fact that climate change has presented itself physically in stark ways that are hard to ignore. The 1.5°C threshold was breached for the first time in 2023. Temperature records are being broken repeatedly in all four seasons all over the world. The knock-on effects of flooded towns, missed school days due to extreme heat, disrupted supply chains, and insurance market failures are now everyday realities when they were once notional. People around the world are waking up to the fact that we are not prepared for the warming we are living with now, and what’s likely in the near future. Probable Futures is a great place for them to get oriented.  

Climate risk is becoming more standardized in the private sector as well, partially for the reasons described above, but also because newly created regulations such as the SEC rule are requiring companies to understand their climate risk and disclose it to stakeholders. 

Furthermore, and importantly, the legal and political backlash against corporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs—more pejoratively referred to as “woke capitalism”—is creating barriers for companies that aim to play a positive role in addressing climate change. But while ESG initiatives are considered voluntary in the corporate context, understanding, assessing, and addressing climate risk is not. In fact, companies have always been required to pay attention to risk as a matter of fiduciary responsibility. As such, we continue to dedicate Probable Futures’s time and expertise to help business leaders incorporate climate risk into their thinking, planning, and processes. 

And yet, there is still so much to do

This letter, with its unabashed detailing of progress on our goals over the past few years, is a bit of a departure from the typical Probable Futures communication. Touting our accomplishments is not really our style. Whatever those accomplishments might be, we are nothing if not realists, and we are painfully aware of the limits that any one person, group of people, or organization can have on a problem as massive, global, and complex as addressing climate change. 

There is still so much work to be done. But as the leader of this initiative, I encourage our team to take pride and satisfaction in our everyday achievements, in the external recognition of our work, and in our progress, even when it is incremental. Against the backdrop of an enormous challenge and an ambitious goal, I have no doubt that doing so will energize our team and our community, deepen our determination, and nourish our souls. It may even help increase the odds—even ever so slightly—that the future will be good. 

On behalf of the Probable Futures team, we are grateful to each and every one of you for your encouragement, your contributions, your feedback, and your support. 


Alison Smart