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Colossal Climate Clock in New York City counts down to global deadline

Climate crisis countdown clock unveiled in NYC
Massive digital clock counts down to a deadline in the climate crisis 05:32

In a city with an endless supply of iconic artistic landmarks, one that never fails to capture New Yorkers' attention is the 15-digit digital display called the Metronome on the south side of Union Square. Many people, admittedly including myself, always thought it was the U.S. national debt clicking off at a breakneck pace. It's not.

In actuality it is an elaborate clock called "The Passage," with the numbers on the left side telling the current time and the right side displaying the time remaining in the day. At least, that's what it was up until Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m., when two climate activists named Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd watched as the display changed into the Climate Clock — the culmination of a two-year dream come true.

Now, from left to right, the Climate Clock displays a deadline of sorts: the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds left to curb greenhouse gas emissions enough to give the Earth a two-thirds chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, as compared to pre-industrial times. This is the goal of the international Paris Climate Agreement — a level of warming which, if we exceed, scientists say the impacts will become increasingly more disastrous.

The Climate Clock team minutes after the display was switched over on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Jeff Berardelli/CBS News

As you can see from the photo of the above, humanity only has a little over seven years to meet this very ambitious, and some would say unattainable, goal. But Boyd says, whether or not we choose to accept this timeline, the laws of physics don't much care. "You can't negotiate with reality. You can't negotiate with science. Scientists are telling us that the next seven years are crucial to the fate of the Earth and to humanity." 

Another slightly less aggressive benchmark from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 — nine years away — to give the Earth a 50% chance of not exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. 

This is the benchmark famously invoked by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 when she said "the world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change" — a quote which right-wing politicians and media pounced on. Ocasio-Cortez, a sponsor of the Green New Deal, was making the point that if humanity does not take fast action on climate we will "lock in" a level of warming that will mean disaster for many of our planet's inhabitants.

Boyd and Golan hope that this clock serves as a constant reminder to passersby of the short timeline and ambitious action required to stave off the worst effects of climate change.  

"Our hope is for this clock to be a beacon to galvanize climate action," says Golan.

While it's not yet certain, they say it is looking increasingly likely the Climate Clock will remain a permanent part of the New York City landscape. The next step is to help other cities across the world to erect their own climate clocks. The pair say they are already speaking to a few other cities about expanding their idea.

"We believe that having these monumental clocks visible in public squares across the world, and smaller ones in universities and classrooms and corporate lobbies, all showing the same number, can get us all on the same page," says Golan. "We need for everyone in the world to 'synchronize our watches'." 

For Golan, this two-year journey is a personal one. He explains that he's been a climate activist for quite some time, helping organize the People's Climate March in New York City in 2014 — an event which brought 400,000 people out into the streets. But in October 2018 his passion intensified when two concurrent events, the birth of his daughter and the release of the alarming IPCC report on the impact of 1.5 °C of global warming, inspired him to act.

"My daughter would still not yet be a teenager and we have already decided the fate of her world for her. Those two events happening side by side grounded me in a whole different way, and gave this scientific number a deep personal meaning to me," explained Golan. "I felt I wanted to shout this number from the top of every building. This project became my way of doing that."

So he teamed up with Boyd, a fellow climate activist, whose title is now Chief Existential Officer of, to figure out how to raise awareness about this dire timeline and synchronize our collective clocks. 
A year ago the team got a boost when the world's most famous climate activist, 17-year-old Greta Thunberg, came to the U.S. and asked them to build the first climate clock for her.  She wanted to carry it into the U.N. and show it to the Secretary-General  to focus his eyes on the deadline and implore him to "listen to the scientists."

Just like the new Union Square Climate Clock, Greta's clock had the same deadline countdown on the left side. But in addition, it also had another number on the right  called the lifeline, showing the percent of the world's energy being generated from renewables which do not emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The point of displaying this dichotomy, according to Boyd: "Our planet has a deadline. But we can turn it into a lifeline." 

The Climate Clock is available on their website, as well as a Climate Clock app for smartphones and a do-it-yourself maker-kit version of the clock.

However, still eluding them was how to achieve the bigger goal of a huge clock in the middle of a highly trafficked area. It was not so obvious is how to find the partners, resources and cooperation to make it happen.

"It was a daunting, nearly impossible task. Understanding the science, wrangling the tech, and getting everyone on the same page," Golan said.

It took a lot of doing, but the stars just seemed to align on the idea of transforming the Metronome. They were pleasantly surprised that the artists behind the Metronome, Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, as well as the building owners and Daniel Zarrilli, the chief climate policy advisor to the mayor of New York, were all on board with the idea. 

"When we started, we couldn't imagine all the steps that we would need to take, all the hoops we would have to jump through," said Golan. "But now we're here. Somehow we did it." 

Boyd says their journey is a good corollary for the journey we all need to take collectively as a human race. 

"It's kind of a microcosm of the larger task we face with climate. It feels impossible now, but if we're willing to take it on, we can learn what we need as we go, and in the end surprise ourselves," said Boyd. As Nelson Mandela once said, "It always seems impossible until it's done."

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