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3.6 Trillion and Counting: New Billboard Clocks Emissions

June 30, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Eight stories above midtown Manhattan, a new billboard has begun counting how much, and how fast, greenhouse gases are entering the atmosphere. Climate Central reports.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a reminder of the world’s carbon footprint. A counter to do just that was unveiled in New York City this month. Our story about it is reported by Heidi Cullen, a climatologist and correspondent for Climate Central, a nonpartisan research group for journalists and scientists.

HEIDI CULLEN, Climate Central: Kevin Parker is a banker on a mission. He heads asset management for Deutsche Bank, and they paid for this, a carbon counter. It’s a display that gives an up-to-the-minute reading of how much and how fast we’re emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, gases which most scientists agree are warming the planet.

According to the scientists who did the math for the counter, human-created carbon dioxide is entering the atmosphere at the rate of 800 metric tons a second. The number on the billboard now tops 3.6 trillion.

At today’s rate of emissions, we could reach 4.4 trillion within 40 years. That number, most scientists say, would constitute dangerous human interference in the climate system: increased storms, drought, species extinction, and sea level rise.

The counter was months in the making, and Deutsche Bank spent an estimate of over $1 million initially and would shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the prime billboard space alone.

The carbon counter sits roughly eight stories high and just a block away is Madison Square Garden and Macy’s. It is visible from nearly every street corner here, where about 500,000 commuters pass every day.

But why exactly is Deutsche Bank investing so much money and energy in this enterprise? And what impact, if any, will it have on the public?

Mark Fulton is the head of climate change investment for the bank.

Raising awareness

MARK FULTON, Deutsche Bank: It's a call to action for thepolicymakers, for the people to think about asking their governments tocontinue doing action on this topic.

HEIDI CULLEN: The carbon counter was modeled on the debtclock, which tracks the nation's debt.

KEVIN PARKER, Deutsche Bank: Many of us from the city whohave visited the city are familiar with the old deficit counter. It just had aprofound impact on people of making them aware of the federal deficit.

HEIDI CULLEN: That rang true for one New Yorker.

NEW YORKWOMAN: Yes, the numbers remind me of the national debt. It's only now thatpeople are really thinking about the national debt, because everyone is reallybeing impacted economically.

HEIDI CULLEN: Still, the deficit has soared in recent years,despite efforts to publicize it. And some people in New York are skeptical that a carbon counterwill make much difference, either.

NEW YORKMAN: A lot of people see that number and won't even know what it means or won'teven pay attention to that, because that's how New Yorkers are. They just walkand go about their business.

NEW YORKWOMAN: I don't really want to see it, because I kind of enjoy living in myignorant bliss at times.

HEIDI CULLEN: The scientists and economists who consultedwith Deutsche Bank on the project had two prime motives: awareness and policychanges.

JOHN REILLY, MIT: Thank you. I'm very pleased to be here today.

HEIDI CULLEN: MIT's John Reilly.

JOHN REILLY, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: We needa cap-and-trade system that will create a price on carbon. Once that's inplace, then we need institutions to bring investors with money to projects thatcan solve this problem.

And that's the role that Deutsche Bank, I think, hopes toplay. Obviously, they hope to make money out of that, but that's the way themarket system works, by creating opportunities.

ROB SOCOLOW, Princeton University: I have hopesthat this counter will find its way into high school classrooms, into thediscussion of the general public. If we start becoming more conscious of thefact that we're changing the planet, if we can get that into our heads, thenthis isn't Republican or Democrat. This is just how it is.

HEIDI CULLEN: Deutsche bank is considering installingsimilar carbon counters in other locations around the globe. But for now, it iswaiting to see whether this billboard has any impact on greenhouse gasemissions.