An easily reportable Climate Change Index for weather comparable to the Nikkei or Dow Jones could help keep the issue at the forefront of public attention. But who will help create and deliver it – the gambling industry perhaps? In this blog I explore why such an index would be a good idea, and some ideas for creating and distributing one.
It’s no exaggeration to say the fate of the world depends on effective action to arrest climate change, and the it’s not news to say the world’s governments are so far falling very short in making the changes necessary. As in other cases, the rate of change delivery is limited by a resolution of two factors: the urgency or need to act, and the perceived feasibility of action.
After governments spent billions and crashed economies in Covid lockdowns, I noticed some plaintive tweets asking why, given that climate is in the end a far bigger threat, it does not merit similar emergency action? The reason of course is that Covid was and is an immediate threat to life, tangible, personal, dreaded and detectable at every level. So action was a political imperative, as it posed an immediate threat to political reputations, positions, careers and entire governments.
The psychological case of climate change is still more like preventative action, with the consequences of failure often perceived to be beyond political terms of office. For the same reason, it will be a struggle to get politicians to devote significant resources to the action needed to stop the next zoonotic jump of a deadly virus from the biodiversity reservoir into humans, or to prepare effectively to prevent or deal with the next pandemic.
Lots is being done to drive urgency and feasibility related to the Climate Emergency, no doubt including by many of the people who read this. Yet many politicians still sense that even with polls showing climate change is a high public priority, they can and need to only go so far in taking action on it. To an extent they are right. There is still a part of every society which denies or pays little attention to climate. And events such as catastrophic fires or floods, and political meetings which generate an episode of media attention push up climate concern but for most, it then recedes behind signals of more immediate concern. Politicians are not just focused on the climate science.
Cartoon reproduced with permission – John Ditchburn (Ditchy) INKCINCT Cartoons
So what more can be done to increase and sustain the level of perceived political feasibility and urgency?
A Daily Reminder
It wouldn’t solve the problem in itself but creating a daily and hard to miss reminder of the damage that climate change is doing to our weather would help, and it is an achievable objective. Including it in all weather forecasts, in the media, apps and online would install it as social fact, creating a floor of salience which climate change would not sink below.
In 2018, following one of those episodic events (a Northern Hemisphere Heat Wave), I argued in ‘A TV Watershed for Climate Change Campaigns’, that the emerging science of ‘climate attribution’ meant the gap between weather and climate had closed and an index for the climate effect in weather should be created to allow easy media reporting in weather forecasts and the news. After all, it’s automatically accepted that the NASDAQ, FTSE100, Dow Jones or other stock exchange indices are important as a significant measure of the health of the global economy. Yet no such daily, weekly or monthly index exists for the health of the global climate.
Three years on climate attribution science has developed, and awareness of it has been spread far and wide by leading practitioners such as Friederike Otto of Oxford University and colleagues at World Weather Attribution but we still have no climate index for weather.
Perhaps that is because expecting climate attribution scientists to invent one may be a fools errand. These people are at the cutting edge of an emerging field and to capturing what they know in a single index is an impossible task. Not surprisingly they are divided (for example) over which bits of attribution science to communicate and how. Perhaps we need to involve practitioners who are nearer a different coalface – public communications of risk and uncertainty?
Activist Weather Forecasters
The most obvious candidates are the public faces of weather forecasting.
Some TV meteorologists and presenters have taken matters into their own hands and started including mentions of climate change in their weather programmes. Climate Without Borders started as a WhatsApp group by Belgian weather forecaster Jill Peeters, the day after the Paris climate conference Agreement was signed in 2017. It includes over 100 forecasters worldwide, who make reference to climate change.
Another network started even earlier, is US-based Climate Matters run by Climate Central. They write:
Knowing that TV meteorologists are among the best and most trusted local science communicators, ClimateMatters began in 2010 as a pilot project with a single TV meteorologist in Columbia, South Carolina with funding from the National Science Foundation. Jim Gandy of WXLT gave his viewers regular updates on how climate change was affecting them through the inaugural Climate Matters.
But to get an index widely used and established it would need institutional buy-in. In 2018 it was suggested that the official German weather forecast system was due to start including climate attribution – I don’t know what happened. The UK Met Office said similar things but I haven’t seen any result. Given the capacity of politicians for prevarication and in some cases even now, their fear of climate denier lobbies, perhaps officially funded national Met’ services are not going to be first off the blocks? In the UK, the commercial channel Sky News now runs a Daily Climate Show (also on Youtube) but there’s no CCI or Climate Change Index for it to report.
Or the international organisations could create such an index system. The IPCC for instance, or the WMO, although they might take a very long time and get too thoroughly immersed in the purely scientific debates over what to include or base it on. More executive agencies like UNEP could facilitate a process.
Other Possible Sources And Channels To Develop An Index
There are of course mainly commercial online weather services with over 20 in the US alone but who else is used to dealing with public communication of risk and uncertainty?
There’s the insurance and re-insurance industries, such as Munich-Re and Swiss-Re, which were among the first, if not the first to recognize that climate change posed an existential risk for their business. But their capacity for foresight is maybe not matched by public liking or trust. Many people don’t understand risk sharing through insurance and resent it as a distress purchase.
Or there’s medicine and health. Research and training in how to understand risk, odds, probabilities and uncertainty and how to communicate it to lay audiences (patients and potential patients) is far more advanced in medicine and public health than in natural sciences, and teaching it is routine in many clinical courses. Yet I suspect the climate and health disciplines have rarely met to discuss practical issues in communicating climate change.
Then there are the news and entertainment media acting as established channels for weather information. Not just broadcasters like the BBC with a global audience of 489m or other supplying the 1.7bn tv households but the far larger number enjoying wider digital access, put at 5.2bn digital phone users and 4.7bn internet users, of a world population of 7.8bn. Online giants such as Google, Apple, Netflix, Youtube and Amazon, certainly have the resources to take on such a project, and many have signed up to climate initiatives such as SBTi.
Another major public-facing industry which presents probabilities in ways that people are used to responding to, is the gambling industry. It’s estimated that around 1.6bn people gamble throughout the year and 2bn have gambled at some point in their lives. Online sports betting might offer a suitable connection. Whether or not punters fully understand ‘odds’ from an academic risk perspective may not be the point. How people do respond is heavily researched and it is likely that the more frequent gamblers are also disproportionately represented among those who resist or avoid ‘climate messaging’ (ie in motivational values terms, some Prospectors and Settlers). Plus the immensely profitable gambling industry is only too aware that it suffers something of an ethical and moral deficit. An opportunity possibly, for it to be seen to do something useful?
Alternatively there are those who already make a business out of supplying index based information, such as the finance industry. Thanks to Bloomberg’s and others it is now closely tied into action on climate, such as the TCFD, and has great ‘convening power’.
What Sort Of Index?
First and foremost it should be simple and understandable, and quick to reference, to maximise the number of channels that carry it and the number of people who notice it, so that it stands the best chance of registering with publics.
As a non-expert it seems to me that two obvious and complementary candidates are:
(1) a measure of polluted and unpolluted temperatures, which could be related to periods eg a year-to-date, or months, or weeks, which are already often referred to in weather broadcasts as in “it’s been an unusually warm …” or “well above the average for … or a record-breaking …” but visualised with a pre-human-warming value and the human-warmed value and explicitly a climate change index.
(2) ratings of extreme events (heat waves, storms etc based on climate attribution of the sort done by Fredi Otto and colleagues), perhaps a 1 – 5 climate change rating in the numerical style of the Hurricane Category Scale.
In the first case the main arguments might be over baselines and regional applicability.
In the second case they might be over whether there is only one parameter or more. The 1-5 Saffir-SimpsonHurricane scale was is wind-speed-based and was originated by an engineer Herbert Saffir, who was developing low-cost housing in hurricane prone areas. He realised there was no simple scale of the likely damage similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, and then worked with meteorologist Robert Simpson to develop the Hurricane grading which was launched in the US in 1973.
That scale gives a good approximation of what counts to people but it’s not about levels of confidence in what the public would call prediction. Attribution analysis is about how likely it is that an event is or was caused by climate change and not necessarily how damaging or large it is.
But what counts in this case would be whether the index gets noticed, is easily recalled, and enters into public consciousness, and then is used as a reference point in public conversation, which of course also has implications for personal or political action.
Maybe sadly for scientists, it does not really matter is the wider public don’t fully grasp the derivation. For instance, how many of those who look at whether the the Dow Jones, FTSE, DAX or Nikkei are going up or down, really understand how the indices are calculated? In dealing with complex and arcane analysis we are all used to delegating authority to others. A well-known case in the UK was the discovery that many people were buying white goods labelled as A-rated because they thought it denoted an overall better product, not realising that the rating was based only on energy efficiency. So long as it has a positive overall effect, it would be worth doing, and for those who want to know the details, those should be made available.
Operationalising An Index
There are lots of ways to approach this but I suggest if possible starting with a set of convenors and candidate sponsors who share a common vision and have or could secure the means to ensure an index is launched and run.
They would then have to oversee a process taking into account three main factors: what the ‘science’, meaning climate scientists and attribution scientists think can be said with confidence; what would be attractive to distribution channels and messengers; and public understanding/ comprehension/ cognitive processing.
A prior question framing the brief is what needs to be communicated (my starting suggestions are above), which could be best answered by climate change campaigners and practitioners, including political analysts and public affairs experts. It would be important that the task did not creep into trying to popularise, summarise or crystallise the state of climate attribution knowledge.
This would require a series of market and formative qualitative research projects, expensive compared to many NGO climate campaign projects but peanuts compared to what’s at stake, or expenditure on climate science research such as modelling. These would include desk research of existing insight, workshops to originate ideas, some testing of assumptions, and production and testing of possible index executions to produce and pilot some options and help develop a communications strategy to roll it out.
Both origination and tests of possible executions would need to take some account of regional differences, cultural communication points, language and norms but most of that tuning would be better done by distributors at a later stage.
Food For Thought
Saffir-Simpson scale for Hurricanes Wikipedia
Saffir-Simpson scale for Hurricanes NOAA, US
Saffir-Simpson scale for Hurricanes Scoopnest/NWS
Evolution of the IPCC burning ember diagram – Hans Joachim Schellnhuber
IPCC likelihood scale
Understanding Extreme Event Attribution – climate.gov
Attribution of additional temperature in California heatwave 2020 – climatesignals.org
Stock market crash – FinancialExpress.com
TV market report – Alamy.com
Ed Hawkins Warming Stripes from Climate in Arts and History
The Plimsoll Line designed to stop ships sinking from overloading – pinterest
iPhone weather app
Got an idea? Please leave comment.