The Climate Clock is ticking, but for whom?

Sile Surman, Columnist

In the last several weeks, you may have come across a picture circulating around social media of a large digital timer in New York City. An Instagram post of the 15-digit clock from Washington Post garnered well over one million likes.

The Climate Clock, created by Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd, faces Union Square with a looming deadline. According to the Climate Clock website, the timer was “counting down how long it will take, at current rates of emissions, to burn through our ‘carbon budget.’” We have roughly seven years left until global temperatures are predicted to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The digital art project ended the display on Sept. 27, but it sparked new conversations around the ever-present threat of climate change and its effects. Golan and Boyd’s art made a considerable impression on the general public. It did what it was intended to do by furthering the national discussion around global climate change.

While the art installation helped to emphasize the urgency of our situation, another audience desperately needs to internalize the impact of carbon emissions. As the clock ticks, the public wallows in climate anxiety and powerful corporations get off scot free. The art directs blame towards those who walk by it instead of towards the increasingly guilty contributors to global carbon emissions: fossil fuel companies.

Illustration by Annika Bauerle.

A 2017 study found that 71% of global carbon emissions come from only 100 companies. It’s a shocking and disappointing piece of information; and I desperately want to place the heavy burden of responsibility on the shoulders of these companies.

We’re holding the wrong people accountable by plastering a huge clock in front of everyday Americans.

Sure, I support taking small steps to live more sustainably. Opting to ride your bike, eat less meat or participate in environmental activism for the sake of our planet’s future is completely respectable (though the choice to live sustainably is often a privilege). However, I don’t support instilling guilt in everyday citizens while large corporations recklessly add to enormous carbon emissions.

Many people, including myself, are all too familiar with feelings of “climate anxiety” or “eco anxiety.” The American Psychological Association says that mental health problems and stress levels are often negatively impacted by the effects of climate change, especially from climate-related disasters. The possibilities of long term climate impacts can cause feelings of powerlessness, frustration and anxiety.

A 2019 report found that the five largest oil and gas companies paid almost $200 million annually to lobby against policies that address climate change. BP spent millions of dollars to stop a carbon tax in Washington state. Clearly, this eco anxiety is not plaguing the guiltiest contributors to climate change. 

I wish this clock could be displayed on the desks of executives who profit daily from polluting our earth. I’d like the people who block and lobby against policies that tackle climate change to feel the deep sense of dread and anxiety that the public feels on a daily basis. Fossil fuel companies should truly worry about the future in the same way many of us do. But that’s wishful thinking.

Yes, there is undeniable artistic and political value in the Climate Clock. Golan and Boyd reignited a sense of urgency for the future of our planet. However, if we want to reverse what could be soon irreversible, we need to focus on keeping up the pressure on the oil companies that are contributing far more than average people to rising global temperatures. We can do our part as individuals, but it does not and should not stop there.