The Climate Clock Counting Down to Disaster

The Concordia-Based Project Connects Big Ideas Through Art

  • Graphic Gloria François

If you happened to pass by Concordia’s GM building on the evening last March 18, you may have noticed a swirling sphere of electric-blue tendrils projected onto the adjacent building facade.

In the centre of that sphere of light was a countdown, ticking away by the millisecond: It said 15 years until 1.5 C; 28 years until 2 C. What you were looking at was the Climate Clock.

The clock is a large-scale data visualization project created in partnership with Concordia to add the metric of time to the conversation about climate change. The Climate Clock displays an estimated countdown of the time we have left before global warming reaches 1.5 C, and then 2 C, above pre-industrial levels.

Scientific consensus says that breaching even one of these thresholds will have disastrous effects on ecological integrity and human health. By limiting our impact to 1.5 C of warming—the goal set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement—we will still be facing more severe heat waves, loss of land surface area to sea level rise, and a decrease in the world’s drinking water supply. At 2 C, these symptoms worsen drastically.

The question at the heart of the Climate Clock is how does one measure the rate of impending, complex disaster when nothing seems amiss outside the window?

To address that gap, development of the clock was led by David Usher, founder of nonprofit creative studio Human Impact Lab, and Dr. Damon Matthews, associate professor and research chair in climate science and sustainability at Concordia. The two were introduced after Usher went looking for a research partner at Concordia.

“He knew some people who knew of me,” Matthews says, referencing his extensive body of research in climate change mitigation. Matthews serves as Concordia’s scientific liaison to Future Earth, a global sustainability research initiative launched at the 2012 UN Earth Summit, and as partner of the Climate Clock project. Using data from the Global Carbon Project, an initiative to gather knowledge about carbon dioxide, Matthews produces the clock’s estimates each year.

“It’s gone both ways actually,” says Matthews. 2016 was an optimistic year—emissions had stayed stable for three years in a row, so the countdown date was pushed back by a year. “The next year emissions went up a little bit. That took about four months off the clock.”

Designed as a large-scale projection, the clock has reach inside and outside the scientific community—it tours at conferences and symposiums all over the world. Most recently it was shown in Germany at the COP23 UN Climate Change Conference in November 2017. The Clock also reappears annually at Concordia, coinciding with the Global Carbon Project’s latest release of data and the Clock’s subsequent update. It’s also online, available as a website and an app.

“I think we’ve succeeded in making something that’s compelling and has an impact on people,” he says. Less clear, Matthews admits, is how often that impact evolves into action.

Carmela Cucuzzella, a professor and research chair in integrated design, ecology, and sustainability for the built environment, was involved in the initial phases of the project. She says the original plan for the clock included interactive touch points that could be changed by users to show how small everyday actions can reduce the rate of climate change.

Such features could help motivate action. But whether you’re speeding at a brick wall at 200 kph or 50 kph, you’re still speeding at a brick wall. The story of climate change is not a single story, and there is room to question the fundamental assumptions upon which sustainability science research is built.

“How do we take this to be something that would not just cause people to pause and think, but also to translate that reaction into action?”
—Damon Matthews

Paula Monroy, communication & engagement coordinator for Future Earth, has a different perspective to add as an Indigenous woman and former activist who grew up in the lush mountain town of Tepoztlan, Mexico. Dismayed by the violence she saw inflicted upon environmental activists, Monroy set out to explore how she might “work with the system”—framing the words in air quotes to convey her irony.

“I’m quoting because you can’t really work with the system. It’s like dancing with Satan,” she says. “You can’t really do that without joining him.”

With a foot in grassroots organizing around environmental justice and another in bureaucracy and sustainability science research, Monroy is able to recognize the strengths and limitations of both. Her position challenges her to reconcile the differences between Western rationalist theory and the real impacts of communities worldwide.

Monroy graduated from Concordia with a degree in Urban Studies. She describes the opportunity to attend scientific plenaries and conventions as unique learning experiences, but contends that she doesn’t believe in “sustainability,” viewing it as “sustainability of capitalism.”

“It seems like I hate capitalism, but when it’s just an idea: what is it really?” she asks. “Just being greedy and wanting more and more and more. Not knowing when to stop. That would be more of a disease than a concept of economics.”

Monroy raises a point about sustainability in 2018. The question of how to live without destroying the environment has, in many places around the world, long been answered.

“There’s a specific community that I got acquainted with in Oruro, Bolivia, called the Chipayas,” she says. “They survived the Incas, even. And they’re still here. The Incas are not. The Incas scattered when the Spaniards came. So in the end, it’s not even a matter of being the strongest in terms of force, but just being patient and living in harmony with what the West calls the ecosystem—finding that balance with life itself.”

Monroy speculates that a missing connection to the earth prevents many Western decision-makers from seeing what she sees. “The essence is there to just care for life because you’re part of life,” she says. “You don’t see yourself as an alien.”

As a piece of data and art, then, the Climate Clock reveals a tension between scientific knowledge and human behaviour. How do we get from inert facts to living emotions? From defining a direction to moving towards it?

For Matthews, the question remains as the next step. “How do we take this to be something that would not just cause people to pause and think, but also to translate that reaction into action? In terms of either personal action to reduce carbon footprints or government action.”

To Monroy, it’s answered. Her smile is wry. “It is what it is. We’re here, we’re learning, but in the end we’ll see who is the last one to stand.”

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