Perspective B: Climate Ain’t A Joke (, Politics Might Be)

Michael Animation, Data & Graphics, Photo, Video September 22, 2016

Earlier this year, I dived into the New York City public school application mechanism and studied everything inside out, upside down. By May, my family got the letter from the Department of Education notifying us that my son got into our dream school. And his first couple of weeks in this school have been nothing but perfect.

Now this is about something that is also close to my heart but is way out of my control, or out of control by our species at large. (Someone correct me if I am wrong , please!) I have also studied the question of climate crisis for a number of years and it is worrisome, and alarming to be precise.

First, take a look at the 20-year difference between these what I’d call heat maps, color coding the temperatures’ anomalies compared against the 1951-1980 average. In August 20 years ago, only Antarctica was boiling like a hot pot. This past month, the world map looks as orange (and red) like a U.S. presidential nominee. I don’t think there’s anything else that needs to be said about such a drastic change in just a generation. (For more about the maps and to generate your own months or versions, click on the links on “NASA” in captions.)

Anomaly map of world temperatures in August 1996 vs. 1951-1980 (via NASA)


Anomaly map of world temperatures in August 2016 vs. 1951-1980 (via NASA)

Anomaly map of world temperatures in August 2016 vs. 1951-1980 (via NASA)

We live, indeed, in very interesting times. As my Chinese compatriots joking on the Internet would say, we are “lucky” to experience once-in-a-century floods, typhoons, droughts and whatever other forms of disasters once a year, or once a couple of years. Jokes aside, 2016 is probably going to become the warmest year on record. Also check out this cool animated history of temperature trends month by month since 1880 below:

In 136 years of modern record-keeping, July 2016 was the warmest July according to a monthly analysis of global temperatures by scientists at NASA‘s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)

Global temperature anomalies for every month since 1880, a result of the Modern-Era Retrospective analysis for Research and Applications, by NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office


But what is really alarming on top of the warming itself is that even though NASA and other scientists are devoting huge amounts of time and resources to document and show us the facts, a lot of people are tone-deaf to heed them. (Almost half Americans don’t care about facts, and hopefully the next president won’t defund NASA et al.) I do want to steer clear of politics, but I am also convinced that we might have to Trump the (climate) facts up a little to get people to listen, think and, more importantly, act. (Good luck Elon Musk, let’s figure out how to roll a million Tesla’s a year off the assembly line asap.)

The sorry state of affairs is, the climate crisis isn’t a cancer, it is a deadly flu at best. (That is good news and bad news at the same time.) When we hear a flu coming, we may not even want to spend a few minutes to get a flu shot. But if someone is diagnosed with a cancer, the whole mentality is different. A chain of physical, psychological, and social reactions will suddenly be triggered and a lifestyle will totally shift, no matter whether that patient will survive or not.

The climate crisis is like a booboo, nothing more than a bruise on a child’s elbow that we dismiss as part of growing up. It should not be treated lightly like that. But to most of us eking out a busy living, it is a set of petty annoyances in the background of our mind. Sometimes it pops up and irritates us a tiny bit, maybe ruin our day. Then most rest of the month, we keep calm and carry on. (Sorry climate, it is true!)

Thanks to Al Gore, most of us know by now that we are all in a pot of water slowly heating up on a stove. We are totally unconscious of the subtle changes slowly building up. Yet when we reach a point when we are incapable of jumping out, we are doomed in the boiling pot. Now we are seeing the consequences of decades of polarizing politicking in the U.S. democracy (probably more share of the blame goes to the GOP). It has turned a joke into a real presidential nominee, and now a legitimate threat to a real deal. On the climate front, I think, the good news is that we haven’t screwed ourselves that bad yet. But we just need to be aware that as the years pass in front of us and our children, we are pushing ourselves to the losing end of the game. And time is not on our side.

This election might be just too important. Hopefully the one who seriously treats climate change as a joke won’t win. (Alas, I don’t have a vote.)

Chess the white lineup

Chess the white lineup, a kind of 3D perspective using the GIF technique. True 3D viewing appointments can be made by contacting info [at] michael zhao [dot] net