Cast your mind back to the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the world seemed to have a single shared obsession - the “R number”. This simple metric, which measured the reproductive rate of the virus, gave a tangible sense of the invisible threat that lurked around us. Was it above one, meaning that the virus was spreading exponentially? Or had lockdowns and other public health measures successfully brought it below that threshold? The R number became a predictor of the public mood like a barometer - forecasting impending storms, or clear skies.
Covid is very much still out there, but swift measures on social distancing, travel restrictions, and vaccine distribution mean that it’s no longer seen by most as a major threat to humankind. These policies demonstrated what fast action, strong leadership and global cooperation can achieve, but their success was judged almost entirely by that R number.
This brings us to a crucial question. Do we need new metrics for communicating climate change?
Now that the urgency of the pandemic has receded for much of the world, another major threat looms larger than it ever has before - and it’s one that policymakers have so far failed to get a grip on. Climate change is already dramatically raising the likelihood of extreme weather events, causing shortages of food, water and other crucial necessities, and displacing people from their homes with increasing regularity.
In light of the swift action that we saw on Covid, why don’t we see a similar sense of urgency on what is arguably a much larger problem? One that threatens not just our health, but the habitability of our planet?
The answer is complex, and multifaceted. But surely part of it is that we lack a compelling, easy-to-understand “R number” for climate change - a single, digestible indicator that can galvanise public attention and be used to judge the success (or lack thereof) of political action. The ways in which humans are changing our planet are measured in various ways, but none of these metrics resonate with the immediate and clarity that the R number brought to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This brings us to a crucial question. Do we need new metrics for communicating climate change? Metrics that clarify the stakes, and guide effective policy? Metrics that bridge the gap between the abstract and invisible threat of climate change, and the concrete steps needed for action? Metrics that could transform public understanding, and finally instil the urgency that the escalating climate crisis desperately demands.
Kris de Meyer, director of the Climate Action Unit at UCL, thinks we do. His team has spent the last year developing a prototype of a new climate dashboard which is inspired by the R-number. The dashboard, which brings together the causes of climate change, the rate at which it's happening, and the impacts that it's having on our weather systems, is designed to offer journalists and other science communicators a set of tools to tell stories about the changes that humans are making to the planet, and how they’re linked to the experiences people have in their day-to-day lives.
It does this in just three numbers. “The first metric is the Earth's energy imbalance and that is the primary driver of climate change,” de Meyer explains. “It's the difference between the amount of energy coming into the Earth system from the Sun, and the amount of energy that the Earth radiates back into space. We're losing some heat into space, but there's a constant stream of energy arriving from the Sun.”
If climate change wasn’t happening, that number would be hovering around zero, meaning that the amount of energy coming in and the amount going out is more or less equal. Unfortunately, human activity has pushed it out of balance. “We're adding more energy to the Earth's system than we're losing back into space, which means that the Earth is storing that energy and that energy is leading to all sorts of downstream changes in weather,” explains de Meyer.
The second metric is the speed at which the Earth is warming, expressed as the number of degrees per decade. “The reason why we picked the speed of warming is because it tells us something about what is happening to global temperatures, or regional temperatures, right now,” says de Meyer. He argues that the traditional climate metric of how much warmer the Earth is than during the pre-industrial period hides the real pace of change. “Most of the 1.2 degrees that we've had has been happening in the last 40 years alone,” he says.
Finally, the third metric featured in the dashboard ties directly into people’s experiences - it’s an index of the ‘unusualness’ of the weather we’re experiencing. “Every event where the temperature is being broken is being counted and then compared to the amount of these record-breaking temperatures that we would have if climate change wasn't happening,” de Meyer explains.
“Where the speed of warming tells us something about the average, this tells us something about the extremes. Climate change is changing ocean currents and wind currents. It is changing precipitation. It is making heatwaves longer and stronger, as we’re seeing at this very moment in much of Europe and the US. It can also generate more storms and change seasonal wind patterns, like monsoons. So by absorbing all of that energy, trapping all of that energy in the Earth's system, we are supercharging the weather.”
Together, de Meyer believes, these three metrics tell a compelling story that link the physical causes of climate change to people’s experiences of how the weather is changing.
You'll notice several things missing from these numbers that are commonly seen in communication around climate change. There’s no sea level rise. There are no tonnes of carbon, or parts per million of greenhouse gases. There’s no “net zero” or “1.5C”. There aren’t any friendly “human” comparisons - like bathtubs full of gasoline, or barrels of oil being stacked to the moon.
This is intentional, says Lucy Hubble-Rose, deputy director of the UCL Climate Action Unit. “The way that these climate metrics have been used in the past is really as headline statements. A new threshold will be crossed or we'll reach a threshold, say, in parts per million, and that will be reported as a headline within the media. But what we weren't seeing, and what we felt was a gap, was that there weren't metrics which can act as tools.”
Take the heatwaves of summer 2023 as an example, says Hubble-Rose. “It was notable to me that in a number of places they were being reported, the words climate change were never mentioned. That's partly because journalists don't have a metric that they can reach for in the storytelling of what's happening - it's difficult to say: ‘This is climate change.’ You could reach for something like [our dashboard’s] unusualness metric in that situation, or the speed of warming metric, as a bit of context for what is happening in relation to climate change.”
Because of that, we know that it's important that reporting of climate change needs to start to come into lots and lots of other stories where it’s a factor, even if perhaps not the only factor.
Similarly, the team did some tracking on media coverage of notable climate news stories. The release of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example. “After three days it tails off,” says de Meyer. “The first day it was everywhere and then by a week there was no reporting on it at all,” adds Hubble-Rose. “Because of that, we know that it's important that reporting of climate change needs to start to come into lots and lots of other stories where it’s a factor, even if perhaps not the only factor.”
Hubble-Rose also notes that our existing metrics are primarily designed for a conversation about whether climate change is happening or not, and that’s an argument that’s now largely over. “There is a lot of agreement now that climate change is happening”, she says. “The main thing that people are trying to do now is to either effect change or to explain how fast it's happening or to explain how it's happening in the context of what we're seeing in the world. So those metrics which were historically extremely useful to be able to say, ‘Look, climate change is real,’ are less useful in telling those stories of what is happening right now.”
The first seed of the project was planted in July 2021 when an email landed in de Meyer's inbox, inviting him to a workshop with a collection of communicators, journalists, and scientists. The focus of the event was on what climate communicators could learn from how the R number was being used in reporting on COVID-19.
“I saw a lot of big names in the invitation list”, de Meyer says, “and with my hat on as a workshop facilitator I was thinking: this would really benefit from good facilitation to get as much information as we can out of those big names.” So he reached out to the organisers - the WWF and the Quadrature Climate Foundation - and asked if they needed help with the design and facilitation. “They said, ‘yes’, and so we started to work with the teams that were putting this workshop together.”
The result was an hour-long discussion where the experts in attendance discussed what made the R number popular, what made it a good representation of risk, what made it useful to communicators, and how those learnings could be applied to climate. The team collected together the conversations and analysed them, then went back to WWF and QCF with some suggestions for how the organisers could take the project forward. “They said, ‘Would you want to do this? Because we don't have the capacity to do this,’” de Meyer recalls. So his team wrote up a project proposal, secured funding from QCF, and got to work.
The first step was to gather a list of candidate metrics, and start narrowing them down - the team ran a series of scoping meetings with scientists, data experts and journalists, testing different ideas and their pros and cons. There wasn’t always agreement. “Rather than trying to accommodate the opinion of every scientist in the room, we set it up in terms of trade-offs,” says de Meyer. “Then we analysed that information and read it back to them and said, ‘Based on everything you said, we want to go for this trade off. Is that acceptable to you?’”
Early on, they found that data wasn't really the problem. There was a lot of data. The problem was about making that data more accessible to communicators and the public. They hunted for metrics that were closely linked to the system, that were easy to understand and remember, that had a natural threshold between “good and bad” (like the above/below 1 threshold of the R number), and that showed the immediate situation, not an average or projection over many decades. They also looked at scientific robustness, availability of data, usefulness for comms, and more - eventually settling on four metrics - the three listed above, as well as a fourth “people-related impact metric”.
This last metric proved particularly thorny to nail down. “It was meant to be one that looked at what is happening to people,” says de Meyer. “But very quickly, when we started to talk to some people about this, we realised what a can of worms it is in terms of how much people are exposed to something versus how much they are vulnerable to the consequences of it.”
As an example, think about how a heatwave would affect someone in a country where air conditioning is commonly available, versus how it would affect someone in a country where it is not. A person in the latter country could be exposed to less extreme weather, while being much more impacted due to their vulnerability to it. “We felt that we were going to be sidetracked in trying to resolve those differences before we could do anything else,” says de Meyer. So it was put to one side. “We would like to come back to it with the experience that we've gathered later on.”
With the core metrics decided upon, the next step was to design the dashboard. This is where Data4Change stepped in -- a nonprofit that works with organisations tackling social, political and environmental issues to help them deliver greater impact. “They were asking questions that we would never have thought to ask,” says Hubble-Rose.
The Data4Change team got deep into the details, looking at the different metrics and how they could be clearly conveyed to a non-expert audience. “They would ask questions like, why do you sometimes use the word rate and why do you sometimes use the word speed? Are they the same thing or not?” says Freya Roberts, the project manager for the UCL Climate Action unit. “They were spotting these moments of inconsistency or us flipping between a more scientific word and a more lay word and saying to us, ‘Why are you using both? Do they mean something different?’”
Another example was an analogy that was being used for the scale of the Earth’s energy imbalance. “It was comparing the total energy imbalance over the entire surface of the Earth to the amount of energy that humanity is using to do all of the things that we are doing. And it's a factor of about 30 difference,” says de Meyer. “The way we had explained that was really not clear. They were asking these really probing questions. And while trying to answer those questions we were like, ‘Ah, maybe we need to come up with a different analogy. Because there are far too many different ways that different audiences could be misinterpreting this, could be hearing something else than what we're trying to explain.’”
The Data4Change team then held a two-and-a-half-day sprint in London, getting together creatives and data experts into three teams working on different prototypes. “The first and perhaps biggest challenge we faced was distilling years worth of scientific research into creative briefs,” says Stina Bäcker, co-founder and head of operations at Data4Change. “Since scientists and designers speak very different languages, and because climate science is such a nuanced and complex topic, it took a lot of effort to make sure we created briefing materials for the sprint that had all the scientific smarts but didn't make you feel like you needed a PhD in environmental science to understand.”
“We pride ourselves on being able to communicate complex concepts well,” says de Meyer, “but having to explain it to them in the first instance, when we started to work on those design briefs, really made us have to think really hard about how to simplify even further than we would normally do. That really brought us to a place where a lot of things that we thought were necessary to explain, actually weren't necessary to explain.”
After the prototypes were created, they were tested with the kinds of audiences who might actually use the product. “We really liked the ‘socialisation’ events that UCL’s Climate Action Unit put on for the intended target audiences which in this case were journalists, media networks and policymakers,” says Bäcker. “This comprehensive user testing led us to a solution that resonated with diverse audiences.”
These sessions weren’t just about feedback, though. They were also about making these targeted audiences aware of the project, giving them an early glimpse of how it works and the opportunity to shape that, and onboarding them on how to use it. “We will definitely try and emulate this for some of our projects in the future,” says Bäcker.
Once the designs had gone through user testing, Data4Change brought in the team at Italian design and innovation firm Accurat to fine-tune the designs into three clear, user-friendly and engaging visuals. “Having also participated in the sprint—with a representative in every team—they were adept at understanding the project nuances and goals,” says Bäcker. “This issue deeply resonates with them, and they committed significant resources to see the project to its completion.”
The team now has a static prototype of the dashboard, but there’s more work to be done before it can be formally launched. “We uncovered some data gaps that exist in terms of how soon or how quickly the data is made available.” says de Meyer. Unlike COVID data, which was updated on a more-or-less daily basis, climate data has a lag of a couple of months. “The data gets captured on a daily basis, it just doesn't get accumulated and integrated on a daily basis. That process takes a lot longer at the moment. We need to go to the providers of these datasets and we need to ask them what needs to happen on their end before that data can be made available.”
Then there’s that missing fourth metric, and perhaps even a fifth. “We didn't just develop the dashboard, we also developed a way to bring scientists and designers and journalists in conversation about changing how climate change is communicated,” says de Meyer. “That process can be helped with further development, which is best done through the development of other metrics. Like the impact metric, or an action-based metric that tells us something about how much progress we are making in tackling climate change.”
The team says it’s important, too, that further socialisation work is done - introducing it carefully to journalistic audiences beyond the climate or science desk. “While climate change is often confined to scientific or political discourse, it intersects with areas like sports, fashion, music, tech, and more,” says Bäcker. “By weaving a climate narrative into unconventional topics, journalists can capture diverse audiences' attention.”
“Equipping journalists with these metrics can foster more insightful discussions between them and climate scientists, catering to their specific reporting niches,” adds Bäcker. “By drawing clear connections between climate change and its direct impact, it's hoped that the public will be more inclined to hold power structures accountable, and also to take individual action on climate change. And it’s imperative not to focus on the doom and gloom, but on the tangible actions that we can still take to mitigate the effects of climate change.”
“I think of it as a smartphone,” says de Meyer. “Once the first smartphone came on the market, we didn't really know all the different ways that smartphones were going to change our lives, and these metrics are similar to that. We don't fully understand or can predict how they will change the way that we talk about climate change. But we think that they can.”
More resources for climate communication
- The United Nations has a great guide to make your climate communication work authoritative, effective, and solutions-oriented.
- Climate Outreach has a Talking Climate Handbook that looks at effective ways to have conversations around climate change in our daily lives.
- The IPCC also commissioned Climate Outreach to create a communications handbook with principles for effective public engagement.
- The University of Bristol and COIN have a guide to communicating uncertainty around climate work.
- Madison Hall interviewed the Sunrise Movement’s data and design teams about harnessing dataviz to advocate for just climate policy.