Keeping It Simple: Scientist Uses Haiku to Explain Climate Change

The year's most important scientific study has been distilled into 19 short poems.

(Photo: Dr. Greg Johnson/Sightline Institute)

Dec 19, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

If you’re not a scientist, the thought of reading a 2,000-page climate change report probably sounds as enticing as reading the U.S. tax code. But boiled down to a series of haiku, our planet’s descent into ecological destruction makes for an engaging and easy read.

Greg Johnson, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was inspired to turn dense science into elegant poetry last month when he was reading the colossal Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Johnson wrote 19 haiku that refine the report’s key findings into digestible nuggets of poetry—like this one:

Big fast carbon surge:

Ice melts, oceans heat and rise

Air warms by decades.

And this one:

We burn more carbon

Air warms for decades—

But seas...for millennia.

The first in a four-part series, the landmark IPCC report was released in September. It confirms with 95 percent certainty that climate change is happening, and human beings are responsible for it.

The impetus to turn the report into some knowledge-dropping poetry, however, came to Johnson by accident. Sightline Daily reports that while home sick one weekend, the oceanographer passed the time writing the report’s essential findings into haiku, a form of poetry he says is meditative.

He didn’t intend for the final product, titled Climate Change 2013: Haiku, to be seen by the public. But after showing it to enthusiastic family and friends, he was persuaded to publish it as a shareable PDF.

“My initial goal was to try and distill the summary for policy makers into something really accessible,” says Johnson. He calls his work “just a modest little set of slides,” which has so far received far more attention online than he anticipated.

Beyond its entertainment value, Johnson’s eco-poetry bridges a crucial gap between the complexities of climate science and the general public’s understanding of it.

A small 2012 study out of the University of California, Berkeley, found that only 12 percent of 270 respondents knew greenhouse gases were connected to global warming, and none could explain the role those gases play.

A follow-up study by the same researchers found that after being presented with a short 400-word explanation, respondents not only could grasp the basic scientific concepts of climate change but were subsequently more likely to believe in its existence.

As a result, the UC Berkeley team recently released a series of short videos to incite greater public understanding and a sense of urgency when it comes to addressing the planet’s melting ice sheets and rising ocean levels.

According to the IPCC, the time to address those planetary changes is now.

The report’s next installment, which was leaked online this month, states, “Throughout the 21st century, climate change impacts will slow down economic growth and poverty reduction, further erode food security and trigger new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.”

Johnson says his poetry series isn’t meant to be a substitute for reading the IPCC’s full report, nor is it an official IPCC document. But he’s hopeful it will spur readers to visit and read the fact sheet that his poetry was based on.

Work like his can give readers a starting point for realizing the importance of climate action. The reason for that, according to Johnson’s art, is simple:

Forty years from now

Children will live in a world

Shaped by our choices.