MIT team's climate clock will shine over Cambridge to raise awareness of climate change

WGBH Radio

Original article and link to audio on WGBH Radio


This Earth Day, a team of researchers, students, faculty and alumni at MIT, along with additional students from Harvard, are raising awareness about climate change with what they believe is the first university climate clock in the world. Originally inspired by the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, the climate clock will be seen starting tonight and through until May 27 on MIT's "green" building, which is the tallest in Cambridge and houses the school's department of Earth, atmostphere and planetary sciences. The MIT Climate Clock team's vision is that “all K-12 schools and higher education institutions in the U.S. and around the world enact their own Climate Clocks, becoming a beacon inspiring reflection and action, protecting our planet and all life.”

Susan Murcott, a lecturer with MIT D-Lab, and Imane Ait Mbiriq, a mechanical engineering grad student, joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Jeremy Siegel and Paris Alston to talk about the effort. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jeremy Siegel: So, Susan, what exactly will people be seeing this evening?

Susan Murcott: They will be seeing what we believe to be the first university climate clock in the world. It's the creation of MIT D-Lab, which is where I work, and it's an international development and humanitarian engineering lab. We work with vulnerable populations around the world, co-creating solutions. Our hands-on courses are usually international, but when the pandemic struck, we needed to step up our action locally.

So in 2020, when I saw the Citgo sign across the river, we needed a symbol of the 21st century to represent the new age that we're in. And originally I had thought of a sign displaying the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. And we wanted to projected it onto the tallest building in Cambridge so that it would be widely seen. We initially thought we wanted to do it as a hack, which is a long tradition of MIT. But we knew we wanted it long-term, and so we knew that we wanted to get permission from the MIT administration. That took some time, but we got permission for Earth Day 2021. Unfortunately, nobody was on campus, and our permission was to project it at the bottom of the "green" building — where no one could see it.

So we reapplied for permission again and got permission to project it concurrent with COP26 during October and November of 2021. And there we got permission to do it on the west face, which faces the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and Kilian Court and up west ... not directly across the river. And that was more widely seen. But again, there were few people on campus.
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Paris Alston: So, so you know, Susan MIT is a global research institution. Both you and Imane are focused on this every day. This is part of your lives. But for people who may be driving by, you know, maybe they look up, they might see a glimpse of it. They may not really know what it is. How do you hope that this is going to inspire them to take action and to get involved?

Imane Ait Mbiriq: Well, what we want to do is, first, have people ask questions: What are these numbers? They see CO2 emissions on a big building, they must ask questions: "What is this clock?" And I guess this is also the role of the media that would be sharing information about the clock. What is this big projection on this big building? And I think just having numbers on the big building will make people ask themselves questions and be curious to know more.

Alston: Here on our show, we have been talking about climate anxiety among young people and people of all ages, for that matter. Is that something that's showing up for you? [00:03:53][10.4]

Mbiriq: This is a great subject that we always talk about during class with Susan. All of this generation is only hearing about how serious the situation is during climate change. And I think this is a good thing for all of us, because growing up now with this new generation and seeing how serious it is, it motivates action and also raises awareness. We are the generation that will be making future decisions later. Growing up now and having been aware of all these problems now will make us take better decisions later.

Siegel: Susan, working on a project like this with students, what is the goal from your perspective of what you hope it does? Is it an outlet for climate anxiety? Is it an idea to get people thinking about climate change as they drive past? What's the goal here?

Murcott: That's exactly right. It's not. It's not so much thinking about climate anxiety, although that is a part of it. It's thinking about climate solutions. And well, we don't have the opportunity to project onto the green building climate solutions. We do have a website linked to to a QR code that will take people in the near future to images and others solutions.

Our overall vision is that we have climate clocks in every K-12 school, in every university campus in the United States and even in the world, so that people can wake up to the reality of this new age and take action. Definitely we need to be in touch with our climate anxiety, but we need to go beyond that, as Greta Thunberg has done, in taking action so that we create the world that we want to live in.

Siegel: Thinking about those numbers being displayed on on a building like that, I mean, thinking about like CO2 emissions in parts per billion. That's that's what you said. As an everyday person, I'm not sure I know exactly what that means. Can you put into words when people see this number tonight, when they're driving, when they're walking, what they should take from it, what it means for them?

Murcott: Let me say that we have four lines:

The first is the goal, and our goal is that we not exceed 1.5 degrees C, which is the Paris agreement's stricter of the two targets. It's the more ambitious target. So that's our goal.

Then we have what we call a "carbon dioxide budget," which is the amount of of a budget that we can spend before we exceed that goal. That's the second number.

And then the key number is the clock itself. It's called the "deadline," and that is how many years we have left before we exceed that deadline at current rates of creating emissions.

And finally, we have the "lifeline," which is the percent of renewable energy in the world.

Now, we understand in messaging that we need to be short and sweet — and we're not right now, we're giving too many messages most likely. We feel that the MIT community can handle that amount of complexity, and we want we want the MIT community to grapple with that. But we do think that a shorter message, perhaps just the CO2 parts per million, which is 420 at the moment, is that key number. You've heard of, right? That "350" is 350 parts per million. That would be a much better number than 420.

Alston: Thank you both so much for joining us today.

More information

MIT Climate Clock

MIT D-Lab class: D-Lab Climate Change and Planetary Health


Susan Murcott, MIT D-Lab Lecturer