Climate Change: Understanding Our Situation with Analogies

by | October 4, 2019

Climate change is complex. Some concepts can be tricky and many numbers are incomprehensibly big.

Analogies make things easier to understand.

This is the story of what’s happening, why, and what to do about it using as many analogies as possible.

Earth has a serious fever

Earth is on pace to warm around 3°C to 4°C. Call it 3.5°C (6.3°F).

That may not sound like a huge deal because we typically think of it like the temperature outside. A 60°F day vs a 66°F day.

But a more accurate way to think about it is to imagine how you would feel if you had a 3.5°C (6.3°F) fever.

That’s 40.5°C (105.9°F).

If you had a fever that high, you would be in the hospital…possibly fighting for your life.

Why is this happening?

Civilization, in its present form, is largely powered by burning dead plants and animals (aka fossil fuels).

Burning these fossil fuels dumps over 1 million tonnes (over 2 billion pounds) of greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere every ten minutes – as if it were a sewer. 1

This is what 1 million tonnes of CO2 looks like next to downtown Toronto:

1 million tonnes of CO2

(That much CO2 every ten minutes.)

You can think of these extra emissions as significantly adding to the existing blanket of greenhouse gases around Earth.

Since 1870, humanity has effectively created an extra blanket of CO2 so massive that, if wrapped around Earth’s surface, it would:

  • Be over 8 feet tall (2.46 m).2
  • Weigh over 2.3 trillion tonnes.3
    • (This weight is roughly equivalent to 44,000 Great Wall of China’s. One Great Wall of China is long enough to go across the US 6 times.)4

Let that sink in.

Luckily, the ocean and land naturally suck up some of it. So only 41% of that CO2 5has stayed in the atmosphere (3.4 feet and 976 billion tonnes).

But every day we add a layer of CO2 to that deadly blanket that’s about 1.27 pieces of paper thick. That’s an extra 1.55 inches of CO2 blanket each year. 6

CO2 emissions alone have made the blanket in our atmosphere 48% thicker since the industrial revolution.7

(This only includes CO2 by the way…historical data for the other GHGs was trickier to come by.)


Two more things to better understand the impact of society’s failing system and the power of this blanket:

  • For every bit of heat created when we burn fossil fuels, 100,000 times more heat will be captured in the atmosphere due to the CO2 released.
  • 4 Hiroshima bombs’ worth of energy are added to Earth’s system every single second because of this ever-growing, man-made part of the blanket.

So what? Why does this matter?

This has fundamentally changed the composition of our atmosphere and oceans.

It matters because the conditions upon which civilization was built no longer exist.

Civilization relies on the stability and predictability of the complex climate system for our most basic necessities (that we so often take for granted) like food, water, and safe places to live.

Unprecedented floods, droughts, heat-waves, wildfires, desertification, jet-stream waviness, rising sea levels, precipitation events, thawing permafrost, and mega-storms are causing more and more chaos in every corner of the world.

You can think of it as if we’ve loaded the weather dice.

Historical Odds - Dice example Odds with climate change - Dice example

(Data from NASA. More details on this analogy here for it to fully make sense.)

With climate change, the dice are now loaded so that higher numbers are rolled much more often and we drew some extra dots on the dice so that we can now roll higher than a 12.

Busting two common myths:

  • Climate change is not some far off issue. It is happening now. It’s going to get very bad in your lifetime – pretty much regardless of how old you are.
  • And despite most people thinking climate change will only affect others, it will (and increasingly is) affecting all of us.

Optimism bias - climate change

So to reiterate – this is happening now. And it’s happening to all of us (albeit unevenly).

…but this is all kinda vague. You probably want specific examples of these climate change impacts, right?

Specific effects of climate change

  • Extreme weather and climate events cost the US $316 billion in 2017. That’s 1.5% of GDP.
  • Houston, Texas faced “once-in-500-years-storms” 3 years in a row. Pre-climate change odds of this happening: ~ 1/125,000,000 (.000000008%).
    • Here’s what all the water from Hurricane Harvey in one water drop looks like (over Houston):

Hurricane Harvey water volume

  • Antarctica is an ice cube that’s a mile high and as big as the US and Mexico combined. It’s melting 6 times faster than it was 40 years ago. As is Greenland. Combined they’re losing about 6 Olympic swimming pools worth of water every second. Combined they hold 212 feet of sea level rise.
  • Scientists expect between 0.5 to 2 feet of sea level rise by 2050 and 2 to 8.4 feet by 2100 (.3 to 2.5 m and .15 to .65 m respectively).
  • We’ve locked in at least 7 feet of eventual sea level rise. This is how much land goes underwater (globally) at 7 feet of sea level rise:

Land underwater globally with 7ft of sea level rise

This is how much land around the world goes underwater with 7 feet of sea level rise 691,123 mi² (1.79 million km²).

  • 200 million people are expected to be climate migrants by 2050. The UN estimates 1 billion people at the high end. 1 billion climate migrants would be like every person living in North and South America being forced to leave their homes because they lack food, water, or a safe place to live.

(Not to mention the fact that the same burning of fossil fuel that is causing the climate crisis is also killing 7 million people a year via air pollution. That’s like six 9/11’s happening around the world every single day. This is already a largely unnoticed health emergency.)

I could go on…

We’ve known about this for decades. Why hasn’t it been fixed?

Good question. Tons of reasons. But here’s two.

1. We hadn’t grasped the dire urgency of the situation or just how much is at stake in the near term.

Climate change is slow-moving and happens incrementally…so we were kind of like that frog being boiled in water, not noticing just how much things have changed – making it easier to believe that it was a distant threat that doesn’t matter to us, here and now.

If you are 33 or younger you’ve never experienced a cooler-than-average month compared to 1950-1981 temperatures.

That baseline is even a bit conservative. If you were to use 1881 – 1910 temperatures, you’d have to be over 53 years old to have lived through a cooler than average month (great chart).

2. More importantly, the fox is in charge of the hen-house.

Despite knowing the catastrophic consequences of their actions, the fossil fuel executives have played many of us like fools. And bought off the most powerful among us.

They’ve manufactured doubt about the science and scientists. They throw money against every major effort to make society more sustainable.

The most profitable industry in the history of our species – fossil fuels – has used its power to run incredibly effective disinformation campaigns and continue to buy or threaten our elected officials so they do not take the required, drastic actions that science demands.

Instead of putting a price on fossil fuels that reflects their true costs on society, our governments are subsidizing them – subsidizing our self-destruction.

The IMF estimates that the fossil fuel industry gets about $1 million in subsidies every minute. And $7 to $10 million a minute if you include externalities.

So…this is a lot. Does what I do actually matter?

Yes. And thank goodness for that!

Some ideas and links to explore:

Truth be told, we’ll never know the ripple effects of most of our actions.

But a small action does have the power to set off a sequence of much greater events. Fun video example below from the Drawdown conference I was at recently (thanks for the demo Daniel!)

Domino Effect

What can we do that makes a real difference?

I’m actually working on a top ten list for this. But for now, I’ll stick with the four most effective actions 16 sustainability experts shared with me.

  • Speak up. Break the climate silence!

Talk to the people you know about climate change and why it’s important to you. If we’re not talking about it, we’ll never take action.

  • Vote climate in all your elections. And help those candidates to win.
  • Hold your representatives accountable.

Push for climate policies that are in line with what the science demands, not what is “politically feasible”. Bills for carbon pricing and initiatives like the Green New Deal are excellent (remember we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030 and be net zero by 2050).

  • Collaborate. Organize with others. Join a movement!

Work with others to bring about real change. Whether it be in your community, company, or country, you have a better chance of making systemic changes when you join forces with other people. As Bill McKibben said, “Movements are, history would indicate, the one way we have of standing up to unjust, entrenched power.”

Bringing it home with gratitude

Fun things we never think about:

“We on earth have just awakened from the great oceans of space and time from which we have emerged. We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice. We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us or we can squander our 15 billion-year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence and knowledge of the cosmos.” – Carl Sagan

You are a representative of an unbroken lineage of life going back 3.8 billion years.

The amount of events that needed to occur exactly as they did for each of us to be here right now is mind-boggling.

The odds of you existing at all are roughly 1 in 400 trillion.

“It is the probability of 2 million people getting together each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice and they all come up with the exact same number—for example, 550,343,279,001. A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible. By that definition, I’ve just shown that you are a miracle. Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.” – Dr. Ali Binazir

We are so lucky to be here.

Life is a gift.

Together, let’s do what we can to make it a good one – not just for ourselves and life on Earth today, but for all of those who come after us.





1 2018 UNEP report shows 53.5 Gt of GHG emissions in 2017. Add in the over 2% rise in emissions in 2018. (53.5 * .02 = 1.07) —> (53.5 + 1.07 = 54.57 Gt GHG emissions in 2018) —> (54.57 Gt / 525,600 minutes in a year = 103,824 tonnes per minute) —> (103,824 tonnes per minute * 10 minutes = 1,038,240 tonnes GHG emissions every ten minutes).

2 Real World Visuals came up with the “carbon quilt” idea in 2009. At that time we put 80 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every day. That’s 29.2 Gt per year. The associated height of the quilt: 80 million tonnes of CO2 = 1 piece of paper thickness. 29.2 Gt = 31 mm.

Historical, cumulative emissions of CO2 as of writing in October 2019: 2.3256 trillion tonnes. (2.3256 trillion tonnes / 29.2 billion tonnes = 79.64) —> (79.64 * 31 mm = 2,469 mm = 8.1 feet).

3 Tonnes of CO2 emitted since 1870: 2.3256 trillion.

4 Estimates for the weight of the Great Wall of China vary. The one I saw show up most often was 116 billion pounds, which comes out to 52,616,714 tonnes. (2,325,600,000,000 tonnes of CO2 / 52,616,714 tonnes in the Great Wall = 44,198 Great Wall of China’s).

Great Wall of China is 13,171 miles long. US East coast to West coast varies. I went with 2,300 miles – slightly above the shortest distance of ~2,100 miles. (13,171 / 2,300 = 5.73).

5 “The total of 615±80 GtC of emissions was partitioned among the atmosphere (250±5 GtC), ocean (150±20 GtC), and the land (190±45 GtC).” (Global Carbon Project)

250 GtC in the atmosphere / 615 total GtC emissions = 40.65%

6 Real World Visual’s Carbon quilt data from 2009: 29.2 billion tonnes of CO2 annually = 31 mm added to the carbon quilt each year, and 1 piece of paper’s height per day. In 2018 CO2 emissions were 37.1 billion tonnes. (37.1 Gt / 29.2 Gt = 1.27) —> (1.27 * 1 piece of paper’s height = 1.27 pieces of paper). And (31 mm added to the carbon quilt in 2009 * 1.27 = 39.37 mm = 1.55 inches).

7Over the past 800,000 years, pre-industrial levels of CO2 were around 280 ppm at its warmest. As of October 2019, they’ve breached 415 ppm. (415 – 280 = 135ppm) —> (135 / 280 = 48% increase in CO2).

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