24 Aug 2009: Opinion

A ‘Dow Jones’ for Climate:
The Case for a Warming Index

If a cap-and-trade bill passes Congress this year, it may include weak emissions targets and will likely need to be strengthened in the years to come. One way to guide future policy: create a Global Climate Change Index that could be used to track global warming’s impacts.

by daniel r. abbasi

With the health care overhaul now consuming Washington, we are once again at risk of seeing the issue of climate change displaced from the national agenda. So, even if the U.S. Senate manages to adhere to its intended schedule by taking up the historic House-passed cap-and-trade bill in September, will the congressional leadership and the president have enough political capital to steer two economy-transforming bills to passage at once?

Many expect any climate change bill that survives this high-stakes moment to be weakened to the point that it will not achieve the scientifically grounded objective of avoiding dangerous global warming. Chief among the concerns is that the bill’s emissions reduction targets won’t be steep enough. After all, the House bill’s targets were weakened by the horse-trading that enabled its passage, and many expect the Senate to weaken them further.

Yet tucked away in the bill is a little-discussed, but ultimately crucial, provision informally referred to as the “scientific look-back.” And that measure, strengthened by a nascent idea to create something I call the Global Climate Change Index (GCCI), could put teeth back into the legislation that will limp across the line in Congress.

The so-called look-back provision calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to report to Congress in 2013 on the latest scientific developments and emissions-reducing solutions. The National Academies of Science would review those findings one year later. These reviews would be repeated every four years, assessing whether the U.S. climate program is on track to hit its emissions targets and whether those targets should be altered.

The President could then recommend changes to Congress, but given the track record of congressional inaction on this issue, it’s anyone’s guess
An index could be used to obligate the President to tighten greenhouse gas emissions targets.
whether Congress would again act to tighten emissions targets. So the look-back provision, as it now stands, must be substantially strengthened in the bill being debated this fall. Otherwise it will mandate an impressive succession of reports, but no real action to keep our emissions targets and other action in line with the latest science.

This is a gap a well-designed Global Climate Change Index would fill. A group of top scientists would be charged with devising a continuously updated index of measurable climate change impacts to inform policy makers, business people, and the public at large about the severity and pace of climate change, and to provide guidance on whether caps on carbon should be raised or lowered. Think of it as a kind of Dow Jones Index for global warming.

The GCCI could be used to obligate the President to tighten greenhouse gas emissions targets if climate change impacts intensify, without requiring elusive future legislative action by Congress. The index’s objectivity would help ensure that future changes in climate policy would be rooted in scientific data, and — as much as possible in a democracy — insulated from political calculations. Businesses, for their part, would have no grounds to complain about unanticipated toughening of emissions targets because they, too, would be able to continuously monitor the GCCI.

Among the data that could be used to compile the index and related sub-indices are the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, average global temperature, length and intensity of extreme heat days, frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, extent and thickness of sea ice and glaciers, changes in ice sheet volume, rate of sea level rise, incidence of climate-sensitive disease, ocean acidification, incidence of drought and flooding, and extent of permafrost thawing.

Scientists would need to design the index to winnow out variables prone to misleading, short-term oscillations. But, based on preliminary consultations with scientists, there appear to be enough reasonably stable indicators to choose from — especially if global averages are used — to smooth out much of the geographic variability.

The GCCI would have a timeliness lacking in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC produces voluminous reports every six years that are summarized for policy-makers and briefly contemplated by the public, but have patently failed to mobilize policy action commensurate to the threats they document. The GCCI would create a middle ground between the massive, episodic, and often-impenetrable texts like the IPCC report and the oversimplified news stories about the latest ice bridge collapse in Antarctica that lack context on the overall climate change problem.

Some might argue that monitoring the new index would impose an additional burden on businesses in an area in which they have little experience. But that is precisely the point. Executives today currently track dozens of macroeconomic indicators and government reports on the health
This index would eliminate the fiction that environmental indicators are separate from our economy.
of the economy — such as GDP, consumer prices, payroll numbers, housing starts, exchange rates, and interest rates — to inform their planning and investment decisions. This GCCI would eliminate the fiction that environmental indicators are ancillary or separate from our economy, and instead treat it as a core measure. In fact, as global warming intensifies, climate change is unfortunately going to impinge much more directly on business decisions, and smart executives are going to have little choice but to enhance their scientific literacy.

This proposal for a GCCI is distinct from the recent call by the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, Jane Lubchenco, to create a National Climate Service (NCS). Now included in the bill before the Senate, the NCS would translate climate impacts down to the regional and local level to help government officials, communities, and businesses react to climate impacts, such as whether to harden a power plant against weather disruption or where to site a wind farm. The GCCI would focus instead on global and national trends and would be primarily used to determine whether our national climate policies should be more (or less) stringent.

In initial consultations, some scientists have expressed legitimate concerns that reducing mounds of complex climate change data to a single number runs a serious risk of oversimplification and misuse. They point out that it will also be difficult in the short term to distinguish climate change impacts from natural variability in weather. There is no substitute, they argue, for the interpretive lens of a scientist as a guide to decision-making. This concern reinforces the importance of not having the GCCI mechanically drive future adjustments of emissions targets, but rather create a guide to action that could be modified by supplementary expert information.

It should also be noted that climate change scientists have so far confronted society with an opposite — and equally insidious — problem: In their scrupulousness to accurately reflect the complexity of climate change when communicating with the public and decision makers, scientists have overwhelmed many people, who have tuned out the science and relegated climate change to a matter of ideological opinion rather than fact.

Some argue that the GCCI would be intrinsically out of date, given that climate change impacts are always a time-lagged response to earlier
We should develop a mechanism to help people grasp the evolving risk of climate change and the rationale for carbon caps.
emissions. This could be addressed by including in the index not only current indicators of global impacts, but also average projections from a carefully chosen set of authoritative climate models — for example, the latest estimates of temperature sensitivity to a projected doubling or tripling of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases over pre-industrial levels.

In addition to the GCCI, we should develop a mechanism to communicate its significance to the general public, helping people grasp the evolving risk of climate change and the rationale for carbon caps that will affect the price of energy.

One related idea could be similar to the seven-story electronic “carbon counter” that Deutsche Bank erected in June in New York City. The counter displays the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, with 800 tons being added per second due to our industrial activities. The
In June, Deutsche Bank introduced a real-time carbon counter outside Madison Square Garden in New York.
whirring numbers are a tangible way of driving home to the public the ceaseless momentum with which we are emitting planet-warming gases. This is a big contribution to public understanding, but it portrays only the cause — not the consequences — of global warming.

To fill that “consequence gap,” we could display the GCCI by installing massive “global warning clocks” in major city squares worldwide. Such clocks would include numerical counters of greenhouse gas emissions – perhaps for that city and country, as well as globally – and juxtaposed above these numerical displays would loom the arresting centerpiece of the installation: a large, slowly rotating three-dimensional globe depicting planet Earth and real-time images — including satellite photographs — of the climate change impacts associated with each component of the GCCI.

The globe could also display computer simulations of past and future climates under different emissions scenarios. Few simulations are more sobering than watching the Arctic ice cap, a vital planetary air conditioner, largely disappear — as it is expected to do this century — while the interior of North America becomes a dark red, reflecting extreme temperatures and drought. This visualization of a future of unabated climate change would carry some urgent motivational power for those who observe it.

Innovations like the Global Climate Change Index and global warning clocks can help society confront the scientific truths that are writing our destiny. Indeed, the global warning clocks should be designed to tap the full spectrum of human motivations. Once each evening, the globe’s sobering procession of climate change indicators should be suspended. In their place, an arresting image of Earth from space would appear, with our blue, cloud-swirled planet reminding us of the beauty of what we have, and what is at risk.

POSTED ON 24 Aug 2009 IN Climate Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics North America 


I am an enthusiast for raising public consciousness about climate change. Dan Abbasi's article advocating an innovative 'Dow Jones" index for climate change expresses an admirable sense of flexibility in what climate information would be presented and how it would be displayed. I like that.

I am also in favor of any ideas leading to reductions in science illiteracy. I think that continuing public education about climate change is key. For example, Dan Abbasi mentions "the Arctic ice cap, a vital planetary air conditioner." However, I suspect that the typical man in the street has no clear idea why the Arctic ice cap is vital or exactly how it acts as an air conditioner, among its important functions. Many people might think that getting rid of the Arctic ice cap would be terrific idea, opening up the fabled Northwest Passage to shipping, for example.

I think medical analogies are useful here, as is often the case in discussing climate change. People are used to getting all kinds of medical data at their annual checkup: weight and blood pressure and pulse, certainly, and maybe other numbers that people have learned something about, like cholesterol. But think of all those additional mysterious numbers that routinely come back from laboratory analyses of blood and urine, for example. How many of them are meaningful to lay people? And then think of the chest x-rays and mammograms that require a specialist to interpret. How many lay people are able to listen knowledgeably through a simple stethoscope? There is just no substitute for medical expertise. We trust our physicians to
interpret our data and to explain the implications to us.

Climate scientists are planetary physicians. Yet many people don't realize that and don't trust climate scientists or believe climate research. An active, highly professional, well-funded misinformation campaign encourages this distrust and denial. It is as though modern medical science were opposed by an energetic association of quacks and charlatans encouraging lay people to ignore their physicians. The subject is not helped by those irresponsible elements of the media that still frame climate change as a "debate" among quarreling scientific experts.

I think it is critical to vigorously refute the climate disinformation campaign and to explain convincingly how science has shown that climate change is real and serious. This message has to be reinforced and repeated constantly for many years, until almost everybody gets it, just as it took decades for the anti-smoking campaigns to be effective despite the disinformation efforts waged by big tobacco. Climate scientists themselves have a responsibility to take part in
this critical educational effort.

Once people are overwhelmingly persuaded of the significance and implications of climate change observations and research, then they will pay much more attention to imaginative efforts that convey the latest climate data vividly in real time. They will come to realize that climate change is already affecting everyone and that each of us has a huge stake in it. After all, who cares most about the Dow Jones and other stock indexes? Answer: people who have their money invested in the stock market.

Richard C. J. Somerville
Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego
Posted by Richard C. J. Somerville on 25 Aug 2009

A Climate Change Index is a brilliant idea but not good enough since the more efficient way to encourage people involving in the battle on Climate Change is to develop several voluntary carbon emissions exchanges in major industrialized countries and emerging countries. If people around the world can freely trade their personal carbon emissions reduction credits (verification of course is required), then without education on Climate Change, people will automatically try to reduce their personal carbon emissions to make money. Once a small group of people can get benefit from their involvement of carbon emissions reduction, more and more people will join the "market." So, the crucial point is how can we design a market institution which enables millions of participants to get benefit is thousand times more efficient than advocating public awareness on Climate Change. Nevertheless, emphasize on school education on Climate Change is much more effective than educating adults.
Posted by Feng Wang on 26 Aug 2009

This is a very intriguing communications innovation. But whether the GCCI exhibits a clear trend underlying the stochastic flutter of component indicators may depend on the details of its algorithms and construction.

And the GCCI trend would not help much with signaling possible approaches to thresholds of acute climate change, much like the Dow doesn't reveal lurking financial crises (indeed, can mask them, as we recently saw). Here the old Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of American Scientists , an index for assaying the risk of nuclear war and set by judgment of an expert panel, had much to recommend it as a public alert.

Good luck with the project.
Paul Raskin
Tellus Instittue
Posted by Paul Raskin on 27 Aug 2009

Increased energy efficiency not only helps industries save energy and money, it reduces their emission amounts.

Natural Gas Energy Efficiency is one method that is not heard of a lot. Most of our industries and also our government institutions consume natural gas to heat space and to produce steam and hot water, to process foods and beverages and textiles, and pharmaceuticals.

All of these natural gas appliances have a chimney, where 20% or more of all the natural gas consumed by these units is being blown into the atmosphere as HOT exhaust.

The technology of "condensing flue gas heat recovery" is designed to increase the energy efficiency of the natural gas appliances to over 90 percent. These appliances would then be venting COOL exhaust, and creating water that can also be utilized.

Hundreds of lbs/hr of CO2 would not be emitted into the atmosphere, per appliance.
Posted by Sid Abma on 27 Aug 2009

Since the Kyoto treaty was signed, much has changed. The term of the treaty now ends in 2012. CO2 emissions increased by 30 percent since its signing. If the conference in Copenhagen is not successful, the Kyoto treaty can be canceled in two years, making action against climate change.

To change the savings patterns of high carbon emissions will require a change in investment patterns. In Copenhagen, the discussion is between two sides: money and emissions.

Let's hope they are taken to balanced conclusions that we can finally return to growth after months of stagnation and even recession, in a sustainable manner without harming the environment as it was occurring.

Posted by Grafica on 15 Dec 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
daniel r. abbasiABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel R. Abbasi oversees public policy research and structures clean energy transactions as director of MissionPoint Capital Partners, a private investment firm that specializes in the transition to a low-carbon economy. He is a former senior adviser in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Policy and a former associate dean at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he wrote Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action.



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