Quick: name three trillion of something that exists. Anything. That's three plus 12 zeroes. At a loss?
Don't worry, I'll help you out. Three trillion is the amount of metric tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A bit of a shocker right? Such is the intended effect of a new 70-foot high carbon counter in New York City, which announces the rolling tally of humanity's carbon footprint to unsuspecting passersby. Go out for a latte and get an environmental slap in the face.
The giant sign, resting on the corner of West 33rd and 7th Avenue adjacent to Madison Square Garden, is a collaboration of colleges across the nation and sponsored by the Deutsche Bank's Climate Change Advisors group. It features 40,960 energy efficient light-emitting diodes to light the 13-digit display, and the power use is mitigated by the purchase of carbon offsets. Of course, the technical challenge of creating a real-time indicator of greenhouse gas concentrations is immense. The number shown is a complex estimate, using numerous economic indicators and other factors, and the value is adjusted as new atmospheric measurements become available.
As I stood on the street corner, I couldn't help but think about an environmental parable I once read. Instead of emitting clear gas, can you imagine if for every pound of carbon dioxide emitted a bag of litter was thrown out the window? The planet would be nothing short of a catastrophic eyesore! There would be simply no doubt in anyone's mind of the urgent need to cut emissions.
The reality is that carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions are invisible to us.
"Out of sight, out of mind" -- we don't see our destruction, so it's easy to deny there's a problem (and create a foolish "debate" on the subject). Therein lies the brilliance of this counter. It remonstrates you for daring to forget the utter immensity of our carbon footprint. The total increased at an incredible speed of about 500 metric tons per second! I was shocked to see few were as awe-inspired as myself; only a couple other people stopped and took notice during the five minutes I sketchily observed.
Well, they can't ignore it for very long. The carbon elephant in the atmosphere is no longer invisible, but glaring red.
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