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How to keep track of climate change

Complex data, distilled and delivered in real time, could shed light on a global issue.

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It’s early days yet, but Abbasi’s proposal unveiled in late August already has scientists and congressional staffers debating its merits. “There’s great strength in the idea of something that’s up there all the time – an index with long-term averages and trends,” says Richard Somerville, a research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego.

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He’s quick to provide caveats about the idea that worry him, such as getting agreement on what measures to use and how to weight them. Another hazard: how to keep such an index from masking dangerous tipping points that would lead to runaway environmental or climate tipping.

“While it’s good to track these things, it might divert attention from underlying causal mechanisms and could lull the public into a false sense of security,” says Paul Raskin, president of the Tellus Institute, a Boston-based environmental think tank.

Abbasi says that his index – unlike the “debt clock” in New York (see sidebar) – would be more than a counter. He wants to focus much more on the impacts. It would also incorporate climate modeling data in order to provide a predictive capability.

Overall, the index idea also resonates with some thinkers behind other types of newly emerging projects to inform the public on climate change.

The world’s first “carbon counter,” tracking tonnage of carbon-based greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere, was unveiled in June, just outside New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“Alerting the public and keeping their attention on climate is a good thing – certainly part of our motive was to focus public attention on the issue,” says John Reilly, a scientist and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School, who helped create the Deutsch Bank-financed carbon counter.

Sporting a 70-foot-high sign with a 13-character digital display with bright red letters, the counter is tracking more than 3.6 trillion of tons of greenhouse gases humanity has so far emitted into the atmosphere.

By tracking simple tonnage, the Deutsch Bank Carbon Counter avoids one key weakness of an index: the difficulty of deriving significant meaning from a combination of measures and deciding the proper weighting for each one.

“I haven’t seen this proposed index, but it sounds a little like indices that try to quantify the best school or the best community to live in,” Dr. Reilly says. “They can lead you in the general direction, but may give some odd results. The challenge is how things are weighted together.”

Meeting that challenge is important, Abbasi argues, because without it, the political process is unlikely to meet what science says is needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

“There’s a strong likelihood that the targets we set in Congress will be scientifically inadequate to deal with climate change,” he says in the interview. “We need to make this scientific look-back provision stronger, put some teeth into it, so that when the legislation is revised someday, we won’t have a repeat of today with the political dynamics taking over.”