The spiralling climate crisis GIF every business leader should see

James Murray
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The spiralling climate crisis GIF every business leader should see

If you haven't seen Ed Hawkins' animated interpretation of global temperature data you need to look at it, and then share it with everyone you know

Like all the best ideas, what strikes you first is the elegant simplicity. In plotting the HadCRUT4.4 global temperature data set from January 1850 to March 2016 on a spiral chart and then animating the results, Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading offers a scarily obvious representation of how rapidly global temperatures are, erm, spiralling out of control.

You might well have seen the results already. Published yesterday, the GIF has since gone viral among the green Twitterati, amassing well over 3,000 re-tweets in less than 24 hours. As Hawkins himself observed this morning, it's "not quite #BoatyMcBoatface", but it's impressive none the less.

However, if you haven't yet seen the short animation, you need to. In fact, I'd go further, you need to replay it daily, you need to share it with everyone you know, you need to send it to your boss and your MP, you need to make it your screensaver.

As Carbon Brief's Dr Simon Evans, one of the first to highlight the original post, noted this morning after amassing more than 2,000 re-tweets, the most commonly used adjective by those sharing the GIF is "terrifying". But "terrifying" doesn't even cover it. As you watch the accelerating outward spiral of the post-industrial revolution temperature record the true scale of the environmental challenge hits home like a freight train, like a forest fire, like a cleaving glacier.

The mistakes, misinterpretations, and misinformation contained in so many climate sceptic arguments are steamrollered by the straightforward force of spiral. A few years of stalled temperature increases are obliterated within seconds by the upward and outward march of historic global temperature records. The suggestion we can wait and see what happens, or adapt to climate change at some undetermined later date looks ever more reckless as the line rapidly closes in on the crucial 2C tipping point.

Of course none of this will stop climate sceptics trotting out their flawed arguments and I don't doubt certain bloggers are even now working on ways to vilify this particular GIF. And yes, I am aware how ridiculous the line 'vilify this particular GIF' is, but we are where we are.

For everyone else the chart is essential viewing and a timely reminder the historic Paris Agreement provides absolutely no room for complacency.

And for a business audience there is a tactical and a strategic lesson contained in Hawkins' terrifying spiral.

On the tactical level, this is the best example yet of what data journalists and web developers have been arguing for years: you can reinvigorate messages by presenting data in new, exciting, and compelling ways. How much better would your sustainability report if you could demonstrate your progress with the captivating simplicity of Hawkins' temperature chart?

On the strategic level, just look at that mesmerising spiral again. There is an understandable but worrying tendency, even among the world's most environmentally progressive companies and governments to underplay the scale of the climate risks we all face.

Business and political leaders too often engage with scientists' warnings for a day or two and then get back to their short-term day-to-day concerns. This disconnect needs to stop. Climate risks need to be properly considered in each and every strategic decision an organisation makes. From corporate investment decisions to fossil fuel extraction planning applications, the stark data contained in this spiraling GIF and the unanswerable connection it has to spiraling greenhouse gas emissions needs to be remembered. Because the alternative is an updated chart, not that many years down the line, that spirals past the 2C mark and beyond, with all the potentially catastrophic impacts that implies.

In the week it was confirmed five Pacific islands have been lost to rising seas, anyone tempted to forget about these risks should install this animation as their screensaver right now and ask what they can do to slow its seemingly inexorable expansion.

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