Global emission pathway, made manifest

2011-02-24

in Geek stuff, Science, The environment

Over lunch yesterday, I had an idea for a climate change art installation that would represent the task that needs to be completed and, crucially, the kind of raw work that needs to go into it.

The central feature would be a steel bar extending up diagonally to the right, shaped like historical and projected future global greenhouse gas emissions, expressed in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It would be anchored at the point of the present, but flexible and free-standing beyond that.

Toward the far end of the bar would be some physical mechanism for bending the whole thing downward. People who saw the installation would contribute physically to the process, which would take weeks or months. Some ideas for mechanisms:

  • A pulley system with a large array of blocks and tackle, allowing people to slowly wrench the bar downward
  • Platforms attached to the bar onto which weights could be progressively moved, lowering it
  • A chain attached near the end of the bar, connected to a large wheel that can slowly be turned

Whatever the mechanism, there would need to be a ratchet system in place to make sure the bar would not swing violently upward if something went wrong.

At the beginning, the whole setup would look like a business-as-usual projection, with annual emissions rising right out to 2100 as humanity continues to exploit coal and unconventional oil and gas (the conventional stuff plausibly being already exhausted by then). At the end, it would look like the curves from the Copenhagen Diagnosis, bent down to carbon neutrality.

An important part of the installation is that the process of moving the bar should be physically hard work for the people viewing the exhibit. It should be uncomfortable in formal clothes, and leave people feeling the strain of it for a couple of minutes afterward. With weights, it could be calibrated to the different strength levels of visitors. Some could move 1kg, some 10kg, some 20kg.

The installation would illustrate how a task that is impossible individually becomes possible when two things happen: when lots of people make an appropriate contribution, and where someone sets up a mechanism that directs and coordinates those actions.

I don’t think you could do this in North America. Some tourist would drop a weight on their foot and sue you and the gallery for millions of dollars. Maybe it could be done in England. If the city of Oxford was willing to take on the liability risks involved in Luminox, maybe there would be some English venue willing to tolerate those associated with a big steel bar under increasing tension.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan February 24, 2011 at 8:12 am

This is a really creative idea – I hope you are able to find a way of bringing it about. Projects that extend over time are great for helping us realize the bias of over-privileging the present.

R.K. February 24, 2011 at 12:26 pm

The metaphor might be closer if the bar is made of something that deforms, rather than comes under tension.

If we suddenly lost the will to de-carbonize in 2080, after going a long way in that direction, global emissions wouldn’t spring back instantly to where they would have been if we never took action.

An installation with a deforming bar would also be safer.

Milan February 26, 2011 at 6:42 pm

True, though a bar under tension seems more aesthetically elegant than one that is bent.

Milan March 5, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Another option would be to have a flexible steel bar that represents the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in parts per million (ppm) with a scale off to the right. To begin with, it would be pointing at the projected concentration for 2100 if no action is taken (maybe as bad as 1000 ppm), and it could be dragged down to safer levels like 450 ppm or 350 ppm.

The tension would have some meaning in this representation, since there will probably always be some temptation to burn the world’s remaining fossil fuels. That temptation will probably need to be actively opposed in the future.

. July 19, 2012 at 6:56 pm

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