STAFF EDITORIAL: The Climate Clock Sends a Message — But to the Wrong People

Jane Miller | The PhoenixCorporations, not individuals, are behind climate change. It's time to stop shifting the blame.

The world has just over seven years before the effects of climate change become irreversible, according to a new clock in Manhattan’s Union Square. A commendable measure? Maybe, but the clock’s message is misplaced.

Sitting on the side of a glass building, the digital Climate Clock counts down in red numbers the time it will take to burn through Earth’s carbon budget. The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted while keeping the planet’s temperature to 1.5 degrees above “pre-industrial levels,” according to the project’s website

By boiling down climate change to a ticking time bomb of a number, we risk misrepresenting where the real priorities lie in tackling the issue — holding our elected officials and big businesses accountable for charting a sustainable path forward for our planet.

Passersby see the clock counting down and may feel dread for an issue they don’t have the resources to solve. 

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A new digital clock unveiled in Manhattan’s Union Square over the weekend promises to tell you exactly how long the world has left to act before an irreversible climate emergency alters human existence. The Climate Clock unveiled by artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd warned at 1:30 p.m. Monday that there were 7 years, 101 days, 17 hours, 29 minutes and 22 seconds until Earth’s carbon budget is depleted, based on current emission rates. A total depletion would thrust the world into further turmoil and suffering through more flooding, more wildfires, worsening famine and extensive human displacement, according to the artists. The timer counts down how long it will take for the world to burn through its carbon budget if swift action isn’t taken to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. If Earth’s temperatures increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius, the planet will fall victim to extreme heat waves, fires, droughts and limited water availability, a 2019 NASA report on global climate change warns. The clock’s second figure, displayed in green, is labeled a “lifeline.” It tracks the percentage of available energy being supplied from renewable sources. Read more by clicking the link in our bio. (Photo by Ben Wolf)

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As individuals, our lifestyles are dictated and dependent on government and big businesses whether we like it or not. We can do our best to modify our transportation methods, diets and waste consumption. But for many, climate-friendly alternatives aren’t accessible or economically feasible thanks to corporate giants and enduring inequalities sown by elected officials.

A 2017 report by CDP and the Climate Accountability Institute reveals just 100 companies have caused 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — gases which lead to the Earth’s warming — since 1988. These companies include ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron.

This study makes clear just how much large corporations are to blame for climate change and who holds the keys to reversing the process.

And with the Trump administration’s deregulatory track record on climate change — namely its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement which brings together nearly 200 countries in an effort to scale back global warming — it’s clear some elected officials aren’t heading the warnings either.

Don’t get us wrong, the Climate Clock brings an important reminder that the drastic outcomes of climate change aren’t too far off. And the widespread circulation of a Washington Post Instagram post about the clock proves it resonated with some. 

The timing is based on a monumental 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations climate science group that painted a harrowing future and a short time frame to turn it around

To most of us, the clock might make us feel helpless as we attempt to live a more sustainable life in a greedy, capitalist society that won’t let us do so easily. Our resources must be targeted at reaching the ones whose interests are embedded in the global warming game.

The political and corporate elite shouldn’t have the luxury of sitting back in their fancy C-Suite offices strategizing the short term while lauding Generation Z as our country’s changemakers.

Our generation will continue fighting the climate fight because our lives depend on it. But the people we elected and those whose salaries we pay for by buying products and paying tuition need to hold up their end of the bargain, too. 

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