Skip navigation
Share via:

Pitch

2 degrees/350ppm don't sound like threats. Gazillion units of carbon pollution do. The Climate Change Clock can help change this dynamic.


Description

Summary

Through more compelling artistic and visual representations, this proposal seeks to change the public's attitude towards the most important quantitative indicators in climate science that currently seem meaningless or trivial in the threat posed:

  • Two degrees Celsius (the maximum temperature rise in global warming assumed to be allowed in order to limit the most serious harm).
  • 350 parts per million (ppm) (the level of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere that is considered "safe" for our climate).

 

It's time to change this dynamic. Art gives us the means to do so.

First, we should select other quantitative measures of climate change that are larger in magnitude and increasing at a rapid pace, such as the cumulative volume of greenhouse gas emissions emitted globally or the amount of energy that represents.

Second, we should combine that chosen quantitative measure with subjective, symbolic elements. Specifically, we can build a Climate Change Clock with a numerical counter showing the new measure (such as the rising quantity of total greenhouse gas emissions emitted globally)—and combine the counter with replicated portions of the "politicians discussing global warming" sculpture that are also partially submerged in water.

Third, we should make copies of this Climate Change Clock and place them in politically and visually strategic locations around the country, such as tourist areas in sight of Capitol Hill and state capitol buildings.

Finally, we can create online versions of the Climate Change Clock and make the script publicly available for those who wish to put it on their website.


What actions do you propose?

Art can inspire, provoke, and convince, its power reflected in the impact of iconic pieces like Picasso's Guernica, photos of "Tank Man" at Tiananmen Square, and the "Blue Marble" image of our planet. Even the simple display of data can stir political passions and bolster ideological movements, as proven by the infamous Times Square "National Debt Clock"—which, of course, isn't an actual clock that tells time but rather a numerical counter.

In the issue area of climate change, a sculpture by Isaac Cordal in Berlin called "politicians discussing global warming" — while partially submerged in water, and yet talking rather than acting — has likewise captured the advocacy world's imagination. So have protests and demonstrations, such as 350.org's "head in the sand" event during which fossil fuel divestment activists mocked Prime Minister Tony Abbott by lowering their heads onto the sand on an Australia beach. The visual impact of the Global Earth Hour campaign, which coordinates people and organizations around the world to turn off their lights at the same time on the same date, is simply stunning and dramatic—but it is evanescent.

The problem is that inherent to climate science are scientific complexities and technical nuances that aren't conducive to public awareness or advocacy campaigns. To a typical busy member of the public, the most important numbers in climate science are among the most meaningless—or worse, seemingly innocuous:

  • Two degrees Celsius (the maximum temperature rise in global warming assumed to be allowed in order to limit the most serious harm).
  • 350 parts per million (ppm) (the level of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere that is considered "safe" for our climate).

 

It's time to change that dynamic. Art gives us the means to do so—to more effectively convey the threat of the industrial carbon pollution that is disrupting our climate. If we want to shape the broader consciousness of the electorate, we must offer more compelling ways for the people at large to think and feel about the issue.

 

First, we should select other quantitative measures of climate change that are larger in magnitude and increasing at a rapid pace, such as the cumulative volume of greenhouse gas emissions emitted globally or the amount of energy that represents.

(For example, one estimate of the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of the planet one degree Celsius—which by itself doesn't sound threatening at all—is about 5 exaJoules of energy. That's 5 with 18 zeros after it, or the entire energy consumption of the United States for 4 million years.)

Second, we should combine that chosen quantitative measure with subjective, symbolic elements. Specifically, the idea is to build a Climate Change Clock with a numerical counter showing the rapidly rising quantity of total greenhouse gas emissions emitted globally. It can then be combined with replicated portions of the "politicians discussing global warming" sculpture and partially submerged in water.

Third, we should make copies of this Climate Change Clock and place them in politically and visually strategic locations around the country, such as city parks on K Street in Washington, DC, the high-foot-traffic Union Station area next to Congress, and similar places in state capitals.

Finally, we should create online versions of the Climate Change Clock and make the script publicly available for those who wish to put it on their website.


Who will take these actions?

Organizations, think tanks, scientists, and other climate change stakeholders would have to determine an appropriate new quantitative measure to highlight in the campaign, develop a formula for representing it on the Climate Change Clock, and conduct the media affairs and grassroots campaign.

Artists and engineers would have to construct and install the Climate Change Clock.

State and city governments would have to approve the installation, as well as work with the stakeholders to provide for its maintenance. (In DC's case, stakeholders would have to watch for attempts by Congress to override the supportive city government policies.)


Where will these actions be taken?

The art installations will be placed in the nation's capitol (in key areas of Washington, DC, such as the city parks on K Street NW and the Union Station area near the Senate Office Buildings), as well as other visually and politically strategic areas across the country, such as tourist areas near state capitols. Stakeholders overseas, of course, would be welcome to implement the idea or their versions in their own nations.


How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?

The short answer is zero. The longer answer is that the direct impact on carbon pollution would not be quantifiable, as with most other initiatives to tilt public opinion in favor of greater and bolder action on climate change. The impact at the state and local level may be more significant and fruitful, given the greater likelihood of garnering media attention and the reality that the Obama Administration's climate change efforts now rest in state implementation of its carbon regulations.


What are other key benefits?

The social and political impact of the art installation proposed here would be indirect because it naturally leads the viewer to reach the desired conclusions instead of simply asserting it. As such, among the pros are that it is less politically confrontational and the impressions formed may stay with the viewer in deeper, more lasting ways.


What are the proposal’s costs?

Exact budgets would still have to be determined. Ideally, the numerical counters would be constructed to use renewable energy (such as solar) and minimize the amount of water required, although the sculpture basin could also be left dry in arid locales (given that droughts are among the extreme weather effects of climate change). The least expensive standalone component of the proposal, the online widgets, would be very cheap to produce.

Among the potential downsides is the Climate Change Clock being dismissed as gimmicky and failing to capture the public's attention. It is also not the bold and direct action at the regulatory and legislative levels that is urgently needed—but of course, it is not purporting to achieve that.


Time line

2015: Stakeholder meetings, planning, design, construction.

2016: Unveilings and installations, media work.

Future years: Maintenance.


Related proposals

[None]


References

Climate Change Art: That Sinking Feeling, The New York Times, Mar. 25, 2014,http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/climate-change-art-that-sinking-feeling

The fossil fuel divestment movement: top 10 campaign stunts, The Guardian, June 12, 2015,http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2015/jun/12/the-fossil-fuel-divestment-movement-top-10-campaign-stunts

Two degrees: The history of climate change’s ‘speed limit’, The Carbon Brief, Dec. 8, 2014,http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2014/12/two-degrees-a-selected-history-of-climate-change-speed-limit

The Science, 350.org, accessed June 12, 2015,http://350.org/about/science

Celebrating Earth Hour, accessed June 12, 2015,http://www.earthhour.org/earthhour-faqs

Climate Change, Media Matters Action Network, Jan. 23, 2013,http://mediamattersaction.org/message/onepagers/201301230002