Deutche Bank’s Big Numbers

Yesterday Deutsche Bank launched its Carbon Counter Billboard, a project of the bank’s “Climate Change Advisors” group. The New York City billboard is part of a campaign called “Know the Number” which aims to raise awareness about the climate crisis (global warming or climate change if you prefer). The thinking is that because greenhouse gases are not visible, people don’t take notice of them. Al Gore and many others working in climate crisis communication have long noted this obstacle to helping people visualize (and thereby appreciate the magnitude of) the issue.

Deutsche Bank's Carbon Counter Billboard

Without context, what does this number mean?

The running billboard numbers actually show CO² equivalent of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in real time. It is based on work by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Climate Change, so the numbers have cred. Below the live counter is a graph showing an 800,000 year record of CO² in the atmosphere.

So, while I think that the graph gives some context to the numbers, for the most part it isn’t going to mean much to the average person. Yeah it’s a big number and it’s increasing fast, but so what? Without a sense of the significance of the number, how can non-scientists and lay-persons know how to interpret it? This strikes me as indicative of the difficulty many climate scientists have with communicating their data. There seems to be this assumption that the data speaks for itself. Sure, the number is important, but it’s way too abstract.

For all the money being spent on this, you would think they could have come up with something a little more meaningful to show why we need to be really worried about the future. Then again, maybe to bankers big numbers in the red are enough of a warning signal…

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About Mark Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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