Americans since 1896 have tracked the economy’s health with the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Now, a climate policy expert working for an investment firm thinks it is time for a climate change average. It would be based on a wide range of data scientists are keeping on oceans, temperatures, permafrost, the atmosphere, storm trends, and more. The information would be synthesized into a daily number called the Global Climate Change Index, or GCCI.

How the number would emerge is still unclear, but the most optimistic view is that the number could rattle off the tongues of news announcers, roll out in websites, appear in its own spot in newspapers, and perhaps flash above Times Square like Deutsche Bank’s carbon counter.

Dan Abbasi – Transparency critical for ‘something as fundamental to civilization.’

It’s a vision that will be familiar to those in the environmental field who long have hoped for a daily environmental index – on air or water quality, or species extinction, or whatever – that could match the popularity and reach of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Dan Abbasi thinks that such a climate index is within the realm of scientists. He envisions a time when journalists use the index to guide how they cover the climate and resulting economic shifts. The index might offer a regular platform from which the media could ask experts to sort out climate patterns and how human-generated activities have affected these patterns.

Abbasi spends his working hours thinking about how climate change is affecting the economy. He is director of regulatory and public policy research at Mission Point Capital Partners in Norwalk, Ct., an investment firm specializing in what it believes is a long-term changeover to a low-carbon economy. The changeover, and the conditions that his firm believes are causing it, such as wilder shifts year to year in temperature and storms, is a complicated process. And one reason it is, Abbasi believes, is that the data are just too offputting, too complex, for most people.

But Abassi isn’t giving up on the American public.

“Transparency is what makes democracy work,” Abbasi said recently in his office in Norwalk. “It’s only fair that something as fundamental to civilization as this is as transparent as possible.” Society must, he said, track the climate with as much rigor as it tracks gross domestic product.

Abbasi introduced the index last summer in the online magazine, Yale Environment 360, which he helped launch when he was an associate dean at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

In 2005, Abbasi ran a leadership conference on climate change and wrote a book about its recommendations, Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action.

Maximizing Science ‘Look-Back’ Provision

Abbasi said he has not fully considered how scientists would weight climate data, but he hopes the idea will get people thinking. When he wrote about it last August, stalled climate change legislation in Congress had motivated him to talk about something in the cobwebs of the climate proposals – “a little-discussed, but ultimately crucial, provision informally referred to as the ‘scientific look-back’.”

“The so-called look-back provision,” he wrote in Yale Environment 360, “calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to report to Congress in 2013 on the latest scientific developments and emissions-reducing solutions. The National Academies of Science would review those findings one year later. These reviews would be repeated every four years, assessing whether the U.S. climate program is on track to hit its emissions targets and whether those targets should be altered.”

Creating the GCCI would be go beyond the simple math used for the Dow. “The Dow is an actual measure of value,” he said. If the climate index worked as he envisions, it would affect the Dow, just as news on housing starts, gross domestic product, consumer behavior, and unemployment all affect the Dow now. Climate-sensitive companies – anything from oil refiners to freight trains to insulation makers – would lose or gain value depending on the climate index. The index would be “a distillation of information that’s out there that is currently not well tracked and should be,” Abbasi said. “It would be a little less mechanical than the Dow.”

An Antidote to ‘Amateur Climate Scientists’

Abbasi is not a systems analyst, and he acknowledges that he doesn’t quite know how the index would come to be. But he is confident that climatologists and other experts could take data that already exists and fashion a workable index. He is fairly sure too that certain kinds of data would carry more weight than others. He said that nonlinear dynamics, the study of how dynamic systems (like the ocean and the weather) behave over long periods of time, would be crucial to establishing the index.

A dramatic warming of the oceans in a strong El Niño year, for instance, would trigger changes in the climate index. If the permafrost in the Arctic slowed its melting or started melting faster, that, too, would change the index. News media then could report on the index’s shift, perhaps even in parlance similar to financial indexes.

The main idea, Abbasi said, is that any eventual climate legislation with a scientific look-back might produce research few might actually read. But if the information can be codified into a meaningful indicator, a number distributred on TV and radio, on billboards, in magazines and papers, companies and policy makers simply would not be able to ignore the climate.

As a policy wonk, Abbasi thinks ahead to a time when such a climate index might inform policy as often as every few years, and when this debate might be less volatile and ugly.

“It’s precisely when people are being amateur climate scientists that we need the discipline of the climate index,” he said.

Filed under: , , , ,