The display, plastered onto the side of a glass building for Climate Week, shows two numbers. The first, displayed in red, is what the creators refer to as a “deadline.” The timer counts down how long it will take for the world to burn through its carbon budget if swift action isn’t taken to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
If Earth’s temperatures increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius, the planet will fall victim to extreme heat waves, fires, droughts and limited water availability, a 2019 NASA report on global climate change warns. Under the Paris agreement, more than 180 countries have pledged to work together to keep Earth’s temperature below a rise of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — and if possible, 1.5 degrees. (President Trump announced in November that the United States was withdrawing from the climate accord.)
The clock’s second figure, displayed in green, is labeled a “lifeline.” It tracks the percentage of available energy being supplied from renewable sources.
“Simply put, we need to get our lifeline to 100% before our deadline reaches 0,” the clock’s official website notes.
The installation, which was unveiled Saturday, replaces the astronomical clock that was first erected at Metronome, New York City’s public art wall that was constructed in 1999.
The original 60-foot-wide monument at 1 Union Square South was designed by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, who wanted to explore “the relationship between the city and time,” according to the Public Art Fund website. The string of numbers known as “The Passage” showed how much time had passed since midnight and how much time was left until midnight.
But the somewhat peculiar design, with its brickwork, bursts of smoke and perplexing LED display, sparked major confusion over the years, with many unsure as to what the numbers actually represented; some people falsely believed the digits were an indicator of national debt.
For Golan and Boyd, the message behind the new numbers is simple: For Earth to survive, carbon emissions must be reduced — and time is running out.
“Our planet has a deadline. But we can turn it into a lifeline,” Boyd told The Washington Post on Monday.
Golan explained that the idea to create a Climate Clock was inspired by the birth of his first child a week before the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “released its devastating report on how little remaining time we had left to make progress on climate change, before the catastrophic effects became irreversible.”
He added that the arrival of his daughter dramatically changed his view of the world:
“What we did in the next few years would determine the world my daughter would live in, that all of us would live in, and I felt that timeline needed to be understood by everyone, everywhere.”
This isn’t the first time Golan and Boyd have joined forces to make a statement about global warming.
In September 2019, just days before Greta Thunberg addressed the U.N. General Assembly, the teen climate activist asked Boyd and Golan to build her a handheld climate clock. At the time, she said she wanted to show it to the U.N. secretary general — and had found the artists after they had offered to work with the IPCC on a clock to accompany its scathing 2018 climate report.
In what they describe as a “lightning-speed effort,” Golan and Boyd pulled together a team of climate science experts, programmers, electrical engineers and designers to create the clock Thunberg wanted — battery-powered and synchronized to the Climate Clock.
Thunberg’s bespoke device was hand-delivered to her hotel the night before her speech. She has since carried it around the world on her travels.
The New York climate clock will be on display until Sept. 27, although the creators say it may one day become a permanent fixture of the Manhattan landscape.
The artists are now calling on people to create their own clocks and say they are working with cities around the world to install their own versions.
“Different countries and different communities may have different roles, but we all have to be on the same timeline,” Golan said, calling for “global unity.”
While some may draw parallels between the climate clock and the Doomsday Clock — a symbolic timepiece intended to signal how close the world is to ending, based on a variety of threats — Golan insists that there’s a sliver of optimism to be had.
“This is not a doomsday clock; the number is not zero. It’s telling us there is still time, but we can’t waste it,” he said.
But as the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 1 million people worldwide, the artists are urging the public not to lose sight of the threat of climate change. Together they hope that the project will remind people to “flatten the climate curve” to protect the planet.
As he unveiled the clock Saturday, Golan encouraged onlookers to reflect on their own carbon footprint and to come together to create change. “The world is literally counting on us,” he said. “Every hour, every minute, every second, counts.”