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2020 Topical Reporting, Climate Change finalist

2°C: Beyond the limit

About the Project

The Washington Post’s “2C: Beyond the Limit” series fundamentally reshaped the climate debate by showing that extreme warming is not a worry for the future – it is here now. You simply have to know where to look.

The series turns on our creation of a novel framework, accompanied by ground-breaking graphics, that allowed us to identify the fastest warming places on Earth. This required working with multiple global temperature datasets, handling gigabytes of climate data.

Then we identified the globe’s hotspots and let the temperature itself determine which stories to tell, deploying teams of journalists around the globe to interview scientists, government officials, planners, farmers, fishers, and others about what it’s like to live in a hot zone.

If the entire planet reaches 2 degrees Celsius, scientists say we face devastating consequences. The Paris climate agreement calls for staying “well below” that number – the most famous digit in the climate change debate. But the world warms very unevenly, meaning key swaths of the planet are already there – and these “hotspots” are growing in number. Our analysis revealed that 10 percent of the planet was already at 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, of warming, or roughly double the global average.

The result is a series that rendered climate change journalism more scientific than it has ever been – allowing us to break major news once our data showed fact patterns that other media outlets have missed.

In many or even most cases, people living in the fastest warming places did not realize how much average temperatures had changed. But we were able to give counties across the U.S. and countries around the world this information, showing millions where they fit into the global story of climate change.

For instance, because we had highly detailed temperature data for the lower 48 United States, we were also able to tell readers in 3,107 counties how much the places where they live had warmed (or in some cases, cooled). For each county, we processed 124 years of data.

We mapped these changes on a spinning globe graphic, and in charts that instantly made clear how much each location diverged from the global average. In several stories, we published our methodologies to explain what we had done.

If this framework was novel, so were the results. The massive ocean hotspot off the coast of Uruguay, the threat to the north Pacific from changes in the Sea of Okhotsk, the upending of an Angolan fishing village – small groups of scientists knew of these stories, but they had not been brought before the broader public.