How to keep track of climate change

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

Yanina Manolova/AP
A 70-foot-high billboard near New York’s Madison Square Garden features a ‘carbon counter’ that lets viewers track greenhouse-gas emissions.

It’s a vexing problem – how to keep the public and policymakers informed and engaged on what many scientists say is the primary long-term challenge to humanity’s well-being: global warming.

You could invite folks to burrow into the most recent 998-page climate-change opus by 620 leading scientists and editors. Or, for lighter reading, peruse the 34-page “frequently asked questions” primer on that same 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

But to capture public attention while avoiding the need for a PhD on sea-ice thickness, glacier melt rates, and carbon dioxide concentrations, you could just put that data into a single index that tracks the pulse of climate change as it happens.

So says Daniel Abbasi, who has proposed a Global Climate Change Index, not unlike the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which tracks stock prices. The index would try to distill the latest ecological figures into something simple enough for the average reader to understand and concrete enough to hold policymakers accountable for lowering greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere.

“We’ve got these big reports that appear every few years, but few people read them,” says Mr. Abbasi, a former senior adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an interview. “Why not reduce this thing into an easier-to-understand set of indicators that can be weighted and aggregated – a distillation that reveals actual impacts we’re seeing in the field.”

Now director of regulatory and public policy research for MissionPoint Capital Partners, a Norwalk, Conn., investment firm, Abbasi’s proposal is stirring scientific debate even as other projects with similar goals are beginning to emerge in the public square.

The big problem with global warming, he says, is not just that the planet is being roasted – it’s trying to maintain public focus on an “inconvenient truth” that is currently portrayed in a nearly incomprehensible way, he says.

“In their scrupulousness to accurately reflect the complexity of climate change when communicating with the public and decisionmakers, scientists have overwhelmed many people,” he writes in an online essay about his idea.

Besieged by disparate climate data and deniers’ claims, both the public and policymakers “have tuned out the science and relegated climate change to a matter of ideological opinion rather than fact,” he writes.
But by distilling the arcana and regular data drips into a single Global Climate Change Index or GCCI, the US and other nations could avoid political drift on this critical issue.

Television news anchors might spout off the latest shift in the GCCI, breaking out for specific attention to key nuances.

Still, the key reason to do it would be to keep policymakers focused on actually reducing climate impacts – not simply developing policies that make constituents happy but don’t effect the needed shift.

Buried in the massive American Clean Energy Security Act of 2009, which recently passed the House, is a “look back provision” that requires the EPA to report the latest data to Congress by 2013. The National Academies of Science would assess those findings and report on if the US climate program was on target.

But what happens between those big, monumental four-year reports? The bill would bring “an impressive succession of reports, but no real action to keep our emissions targets and other action in line with the latest science,” Abbasi contends. Enter the GCCI, which would fill the gap and provide a reality check for both Congress and the president.

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.

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.”

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