Global Warming Explained in 52 Seconds

by Shannon Hall on January 6, 2014

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We are awash in the unseen, the unknown and the unexplained. Our Universe is enshrouded in mystery. Even what we do know — the complex physical laws that describe the planets, stars and galaxies — can seem just beyond any normal human being’s grasp. We can’t all be Einsteins, after all.

But excluding string theory, dark energy and quantum field theory most of science is remarkably within our grasp. And in less than a minute, a concept as culturally conflicted and misunderstood as global warming, can be explained. See above.

The motivation behind this video is simple. Research shows that virtually no Americans — roughly 0 percent — can explain the physical mechanisms of global warming at even a basic level. So Berkeley Professor Michael Ranney and colleagues created a total of five videos (with the longest clocking in at 656 words in under five minutes) with the hope of elucidating the basics of global warming.

Their initial study, completed in 2011, surveyed 270 people in San Diego parks in order to assess how well the average American understands global warming. San Diego was chosen because it draws tourists from across the United States, and would thus create a better rounded sample.

“The main concept we were hoping people would tell us, which is at the heart of understanding global warming, is that there is an asymmetry between stuff that’s coming in to our planet and stuff that’s heading out,” Ranney told Universe Today.

This asymmetry explains why sunlight (in the form of visible light) may enter the atmosphere unhindered but is later impeded by greenhouse gases (because it is no longer in the form of visible light — it has been absorbed by the Earth and emitted in the form of infrared light). But not a single person could explain global warming at this basic level.

“We were shocked at how few people knew this” Ranney said. “I thought it was a moral imperative to get the word out as fast as possible.”

So Ranney and his colleagues set out with their work in front of them, creating the videos in order to increase the average American’s understanding of global warming. Their goal is that any one of the five videos will change the lives of seven billion viewers.

“We hope that a video of 400 words or even 35 words will allow people to have a moment in time to which they fix that they knew what the mechanism of climate change was,” Ranney told Universe Today. For that single moment “their knowledge was obvious, valid, understandable and available.”

Graphic from "How Global Warming Works."

Graphic from “How Global Warming Works.”

In order to drive this point home, Ranney used an analogy that began like this: “So a climate change acceptor walks into a bar.” But all jokes aside, if one who accepts anthropogenic global warming tries to convince the man sitting next to him that global warming is real, but cannot explain the physical mechanism behind global warming, then he’s in trouble. He’s likely not only lost his bar mate but encouraged a life-time of global warming denial.

We cannot expect to increase the public’s awareness and acceptance of climate change without a huge increase in scientific literacy. Even if every viewer can’t recall the exact mechanistic details of global warming they can at least say to the man sitting next to them at the bar: “Look, I can’t regurgitate it now but I did understand it then.”

This graph from NOAA shows the annual trend in average global air temperature in degrees Celsius, through December 2012. For each year, the range of uncertainty is indicated by the gray vertical bars. The blue line tracks the changes in the trend over time. Click here or on the image to enlarge. (Image courtesy NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.)

This graph from NOAA shows the annual trend in average global air temperature in degrees Celsius, through December 2012. For each year, the range of uncertainty is indicated by the gray vertical bars. The blue line tracks the changes in the trend over time. Click here or on the image to enlarge. (Image courtesy NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.)

A second study provided college students with an explanation akin to the one found in the five-minute video.  After reading it, the students not only understood global warming better but they were also more likely to accept global warming as a reality — suggesting these videos have the power to change people’s minds.

“Eventually people come to appreciate salient evidence,” Ranney told Universe Today. “Let’s say you think you’re in a fantastic monogamous relationship. If you come home and find your partner with someone else, it only takes that one moment in time to change your belief.”

Helping people to understand the basic physics behind global warming is a vital tool in convincing them that global warming is as real as it gets. Once someone clicks on the video, the next 52 seconds alone might leave a pretty big impact.

You can view all the videos on howglobalwarmingworks.org.

Ranney emphasized help from graduate student Lee Nevo Lamprey, undergraduate student Kimberly Le and other collaborators (including Dav Clark, Daniel Reinholz, Lloyd Goldwasser, Sarah Cohen and Rachel Ranney).

About 

Shannon Hall is an aspiring science journalist and is an editorial intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. This fall she will attend NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

David English January 8, 2014 at 3:42 PM

Now I know why I was afraid to watch the video. It doesn’t’ say anything! Wow… I am speechless. Is UT really going this way?

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