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.

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.

An index could be used to obligate the President to tighten greenhouse gas emissions targets.

The President could then recommend changes to Congress, but given the track record of congressional inaction on this issue, it’s anyone’s guesswhether 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.

This index would eliminate the fiction that environmental indicators are separate from our economy.

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 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.

We should develop a mechanism to help people grasp the evolving risk of climate change and the rationale for carbon caps.

Some argue that the GCCI would be intrinsically out of date, given that climate change impacts are always a time-lagged response to earlier 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.