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Counting down to two degrees

This Earth Day, sightseers strolling along De Maisonneuve Blvd. near the campus of Concordia University in Montreal will catch an unusual light show: a clock projected onto the surface of a multi-story brick wall that counts down the years, months and days on to milliseconds when the planet will have warmed by 2ºC because of climate change.

The public installation, called the Countdown to 2 Degrees Clock, is a collaboration between artist David Usher and climate scientist Damon Matthews of Concordia. The projection shows an abstract image of the globe seemingly on fire with blue light. On top of it, the digits tick off: On Earth Day 2016, a yearly event to celebrate the planet and recognise the perils facing it, the clock will read 28 years, eight months and 24 days. The designers behind the clock hope that it will communicate the urgency of climate change — that this temperature target, which many international bodies use as a benchmark to gauge when warming will reach dangerous levels, isn’t too far off.

The installation also shows what’s possible when science and art meet, says Matthews, an associate professor in geography, planning and environment. “My hope is that something like this, which is visually mesmerizing, but also conveys a very simple scientific message will get through to people in a way that all the literature that is behind those numbers will not,” he says.

Two Degrees

The 2ºC target has, in many ways, become a symbol of climate change’s point of no return. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body that synthesises and communicates climate science, has used this number for years to guide research on warming temperatures. And in December 2015, nations around the world signed an international agreement to limit warming from climate change to that threshold, and to pursue efforts to stay below the even more ambitious target of 1.5ºC.

David Usher was fascinated by this benchmark, too. He is an artist, entrepreneur and author who runs the creative studio CloudID Media, which sits “at the intersection of art, technology and data.” He began to research what such a spike in temperatures might mean for the world while working on another project about rising sea levels.

“But when I was online looking at two degrees, there’s a lot of information, and it’s part of the public mindset. But there really aren’t a lot of references about the ‘when,’” he says. “And that's a key part of the story. If we want people to care about climate change and two degrees, we need to define to degrees in relation to time."

In other words, when exactly will the planet his this mark if current trends continue? So Usher connected with Matthews, whose research at Concordia focuses on how greenhouse gas emissions drive climate change. The university is the physical host of  Future Earth’s Global Hub in Montreal and the office of the Executive Director, with full support coming from a collaboration between 11 other universities and organisations in the city and province, including Fonds de Recherche du Québec and Montreal International.

To pinpoint a date for Usher, the climate scientist looked at how much carbon nations put into the atmosphere over the last five years, when global emissions increased by about 1.5% each year, on average. He then extended this trend into the future, drawing on current science to come up with a rough estimate of December 2044. The clock also shows the date that the planet will cross the 1.5°C threshold: only 16 years from now in July 2032.

From there, Usher designed the clock. It includes counters that tally how much carbon dioxide humans have added to the atmosphere since 1870 and how much global temperatures have warmed since then, or just over 1ºC. The team will project the clock in Montreal through the weekend but also plans to install it later this year in Vancouver and in Morocco for COP22, the next international climate conference in November.

While the clock may look unsettling, Usher hopes that the people who see it, either online or walking down the streets of Montreal, will feel inspired to act on climate change. “I think that’s the main point of our project: this is within our lifetimes,” he says. “This is not something that is going to happen to somebody else.”

It will also be a constantly evolving project. A lot can change between 2016 and 2044, so every year, Matthews and Usher will shut the clock down for a week before Earth Day. During that time, the scientist and his colleagues will update their calculations based on the newest data available — adding or subtracting time from the countdown. The team is also working to make the project interactive. That will allow users to tweak the clock, seeing how the time remaining before 1.5°C or 2ºC changes based on the decisions that they and others make.

“We could say ‘what happens if we hold emissions constant instead of having them increase,’” Matthews says. “Or ’how quickly do we actually need to decrease emissions to push the time to infinity,’ which is ultimately what we want to do.”

Blending art and science

Matthews adds that he enjoyed the opportunity to work with somebody outside of his field. He explains that as a scientist, he’s used to talking about uncertainty, such as what scientists don’t yet know about how carbon emissions drive climate change on a pound-for-pound basis. But Usher, the artist, pushed him to create a simpler message.

“It’s very easy for me as scientist to get hung up on all of the uncertainty at each step of the process and also to want to reflect that uncertainty somehow,” Matthews says. “But what matters here is not the uncertainty but rather the certainty that we do know enough to make a best guess, and that we are approaching these targets very fast.”

Usher adds that this sort of collaboration will become more important in the years ahead. Today, one of the biggest challenges around climate change is communicating the scientific consensus in a way that makes it immediate for people around the world. As a father, Usher says that the future of the planet has become relevant to him on a deep and personal level.

If people “want to actually solve the problem, we have to find new ways of telling the story. And part of that is really engaging people who have not been engaged in the story so far,” he says. “We need to engage the artists, the designers, writers, the game developers, the interactive programmers.”

To learn more about projects by David Usher, you can visit his website here. To find out how you can embed the clock in your website or project it at a conference or event, contact CloudID Media.