I can see clearly now the vague is gone
On climate visualizations that really stick
Remember when I said we should make Drake drag around a balloon the size of a blimp to illustrate his carbon emissions, in order to see, in living bling, his invisible carbon footprint? Of course you don’t because it was a muddy and vague visual. Barry Saxifrage has conveyed this idea so much more brilliantly by visualizing our unseeable emissions with a very seeable metaphor: straws. And, well, it induces shock and straw.
Saxifrage examines the disconnect between how Canadians want to see ourselves (climate leaders!) and what we really are (climate laggards!) by going deep on trying to represent the average Canadian vehicle’s carbon emissions with straws. He uses two plastic straws to represent each gram of CO₂. In so doing, he can very quickly visually articulate our emissions. When driving, we emit the equivalent of 15 straws every second, or 400 straws per kilometre. Yes, 400 straws EVERY KILOMETRE. (Note: he’s using plastic pollution to convey our overall climate pollution. See handy and frightening chart below.)
Canada has the dubious distinction of driving the world’s dirtiest cars and trucks, with the U.S. coming in a very close second. (Readers in other parts of the world, check out how your country fares here!) Our cars produce an average of 206 grams of climate pollution per kilometre. Which is how Saxifrage arrives at the 400 straws shooting out of our tailpipes every km.
Saxifrage’s other super salient visual representation uses plastic bags. The average Canadian burns 44 kg of CO₂ every day. But it’s impossible to visualize what that means. Well, it’s the equivalent of littering 7,400 plastic bags a day. Aack.
I share all these representations not to induce guilt in myself or anyone else but to illustrate how little we know when it comes to seeing the pollution we produce. And to highlight that knowing this stuff does inform better choices. Research bears this out! A recent Danish/Swedish study about carbon labelling suggests that just knowing a bit more about our emissions really does shift our purchasing habits. Participants reduced the climate impacts of their choices by 25% after choosing to learn about the emissions intensity of their products. Writes Sarah DeWeerdt in Anthropocene:
The findings suggest that carbon labeling of food has the potential to shift behavior among those who aren’t looking for the information—and even among those who are actively trying to avoid it. But to do that, the label will have to be carefully designed: for example, the information needs to be presented simply, and in a can’t miss spot on the front of the package. “If a label is difficult to avoid, the effects are likely to be considerably larger,” the researchers write.
DeWeerdt writes that you simply can’t unknow your food’s carbon footprint. And this rings true for me. A Toronto newspaper had a long-running feature about the unfathomable calorie counts of certain epic restaurant dishes. I like to think I don’t care about this stuff at all, but after they did my favourite cookie (a walnut chocolate chip disc the size of Kansas that really is the best piece of food on the planet), I could never unknow the fact that it clocks in at 1400 calories.
Of course I’m alert to studies and information that reinforce my belief in the importance of making emissions visible to people. Not just so we’ll reconsider our flights, but so we’ll advocate for TOP-DOWN policies that change things at scale, because we cannot stem the stream of straws alone, unless we’re Roman Abramovich. At the same time knowing about the straws and plastic bags is motivating.
I’d somehow made myself feel OK about purchasing a friend’s old car a few months ago — we were going stir crazy, living in a tiny walkable radius no wider than a few blocks, and we wanted to go hiking outside the city. These weekend hikes have been our salvation, but we’ve also put hundreds of thousands of straws of pollution into the atmosphere each time we take a drive to the forest. Picturing our emissions, spewing like so much suckery, makes me want to get back to public transit as soon as possible and commit to an EV if we are going to remain car owners after this GD pandemic ends. My exhaust exhausts me. And I can see it clearly-er now.
Got any tricks for visualizing emissions? I’d love to know!
LAST WEEK: Body cues for climate blues
Lots of feedback on body awareness. Writes N: My body has been falling apart for the past year. My spine x-ray showed my chiropractor I had the spine of a 45-year-old woman - I'm only 25 lol.
Please take care of your spines!
And an extra dose of inspo!
Join a local environmental society, but see to it that it does not waste time on superficial purposes… Don’t think it is enough to attend meetings and sit there like a lump…. It is better to address envelopes than to attend foolish meetings. It is better to study than act too quickly; but it is best to be ready to act intelligently when the appropriate opportunity arises…
Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public. Speak simply and not too long at a time, without over-emotion, always from sound preparation and knowledge. Be a nuisance where it counts, but don’t be a bore at any time… Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action….
Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics — but never give up.
Don’t sit there like a lump! I love it.
Thanks much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.
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