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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Balloons, bathtubs and (fill in the blank)
February 26, 2009 - 2:21pm

While we're on the subject of visual presentation of information, I just want to point out that part of the reason I'm psyched about being able to map greenhouse gas emissions geographically is because (let's be honest here) there isn't currently an effective visual image of climate disruption.

Creating an effective visual metaphor for an abstract, complex problem is always difficult -- effective metaphors get their power from being neither abstract nor complex. That's why the local police department displays the totally smashed car in front of the high school. And it's why Presidents of the USA like to be able to point out the member of the armed services (or surviving family member of such) in the balcony of the Capitol. Take something complex, that most of us don't experience directly, and make it somehow immediate and real.

To date, my favorite image for greenhouse gas emissions has been a public service announcement produced by the government of Victoria, Australia. (Ironically, the part of Oz that recently underwent huge fires after experiencing historic droughts and record high temperatures.) The PSA uses black balloons to demonstrate CO2 emissions on a scale, and in a context, that strikes home.

More recently, John Sterman at MIT's Sloan School has created an online simulator which uses the image of a bathtub to help people understand, from a systems perspective, just how complex it will be to control greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. (And Sterman uses a target level of 500 parts per million, not the 350 ppm many of us think is required.)

The balloons, in part because of the vaguely sinister way they emerge from common household appliances, effectively communicate the feeling of threat, but don't shed a lot of light on why GHGs are a problem, or what (other than using less electricity) anyone can do about them. The bathtub, by illustrating impacts of both water flowing in and (less) water draining out, appropriately demonstrates the behaviors and the limitations of the atmosphere as a carbon sink. (And other parts of the simulator do a good job of communicating a few of the major complicating factors.)

Still, I can't help thinking that there must be some readily accessible image which would work better, in terms of focusing the general public's attention and facilitating their understanding, than both of these. Polar bears on ice floes having been co-opted by Coca-Cola, we need a different kind of poster child.

Any suggestions?

 

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