An ominous, 62-foot-tall clock looms over New York’s iconic Union Square and is about to pass a disturbing milestone. It’s called the Climate Clock and it’s counting down how much time the world has left to stop climate change from getting exponentially worse.
As anyone who has experienced the weather recently knows, the situation is already bad. The world had its hottest week on record earlier this month, according to preliminary data, with heatwaves still breaking local records across the Northern Hemisphere. And that’s just one way climate change is bringing dangerous new extremes.
Today, the planet is about 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter than before the Industrial Revolution, thanks to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. It is what causes more intense heat waves, wildfires, storms and rising sea levels. That’s why world leaders agreed, as part of the historic Paris agreement, to keep the planet from warming much more than it already is. Each part of the scale comes with more severe consequences.
Each part of the scale comes with more severe consequences
The Climate Clock shows how much time is left before ongoing CO2 emissions are capped at at least 1.5 degrees of global warming, a key threshold for global climate goals under the Paris agreement. Today, the time left on the clock falls below six years. In other words, if humans continue to pump roughly the same amount of CO2 pollution over the next five years, we will no longer be able to limit climate change to just 1.5 degrees of warming.
The founders of Climate Clock are holding events on five continents today to draw attention to the dwindling time left, calling it a day of climate emergency. This includes a vigil below the giant digital clock that has faced Union Square since 2020.
“The best day to take action was yesterday. But we use [climate] data to create a timeline that empowers governments and activists to demand change,” says Becca Richie, global community manager of the Climate Clock organization that grew after the master clock was established in New York City. “It is possible to adopt the solutions we need in that time frame and stay below 1.5 degrees.”
The watch began as an artistic form of activism. It’s supposed to be a symbol, sort of like the Doomsday Clock that’s meant to serve as “a metaphor for how close humanity is to self-annihilation.” The Climate Clock in Union Square was originally meant to go on display during New York Climate Week in 2020, but it has since permanently replaced the 24-hour clock unveiled in 1999 as part of an art installation called Metronome.
The clock reflects data from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin. it’s NO Counting down to the exact date, global average temperatures could rise by over 1.5 degrees Celsius. Instead, it is estimating how long it is likely to be before humans produce enough carbon dioxide pollution to cause at least 1.5 degrees of warming.
This is under the assumption that global emissions continue at a pace similar to 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic caused a temporary drop in pollution as economies slowed. Unfortunately, pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Last year was even a record year for energy-related CO2 emissions.
This makes every minute count in the climate clock. The display in Union Square also shows key standards for “lifelines” that can keep the world on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. One of these lifelines is the transition to renewable energy, and the watch periodically displays the percentage of global energy consumption sourced from renewable sources such as wind and solar energy – just under 14 percent today.
“We need action now. Energy infrastructure and structural change is not something you do in two months. It’s something that takes years,” says Sabine Fuss, who heads the working group on sustainable resource management and global change at MCC. “Even if you have a little more time, that means you have to act now.”