So, why is everyone so ecstatic about this latest xkcd cartoon? (Here published half sized to comply with WordPress inflexibility.)
It’s not as if it’s telling us much we didn’t know.
We published this graph right here in 2013:
That massive thing on the left tells pretty much the same story, doesn’t it?
Well, maybe to a scientist or climate science geek it does. We can see how extraordinary the beginnings of the temperature spike look as well as how terrifying the prospects are. We’re familiar with the 21st century prospects, and are interested to see the new details on the post-glacial-max (Holocene) record.
But what Randall Munro realized, what all of us missed, is how we could include some detail on the recent and imminent changes as well as the entire record, by the simple expedient of turning the graph on its side, stretching it enormously, and letting the mouse do the work of scrolling through it.
It’s a Tuftean masterpiece – a new way of displaying data, one that is simply not suitable to the print medium. It treats the scroll affordance as a feature, not (as it usually is) an impediment.
I’m assuming you’ve already seen this graphic. If you haven’t, scroll through the whole thing and come back here if you want.
Again, the graph above and the one on the left have identical information, save for the archaeological color text, which is there to reinforce what your scroll wheel is already telling you, that form a human perspective, the Holocene spans a very very long time.
But in the stretched view, the unusualness of the recent period is graspable along with the very calm global trajectory of the Holocene.
Deniers always seem befuddled by this.
They’re convinced “climate is always changing”. Well, yes, and the cells in your body are constantly changing too, but that’s no reason to lie down in front of an onrushing train.
This graphic can go a long way toward enlightening the redeemably befuddled.
The genius of it is in taking this stretched view to an extreme that wouldn’t be feasible in paper media. It allows for a visceral understanding of the different time scales involved in natural vs anthropogenic climate change.
There are a lot of quibbles that can be addressed to this graphic, and they are little different form the ones addressed to the visualization we presented here 3 years ago. The key one is that the recent and foreseeable record are not as smoothed as the proxy record. There surely are bumps and wiggles in there that have been ironed smooth.
But the point is that we have no reason to suspect that any of those wiggles was as rapid even as the one we have already seen; never mind the extrapolation we have every reason to expect.
And if that’s not enough quibbling for you, you can look into Greg Laden’s Facebook feed, where anthropologists and archaeologists are quibbling over details of Randal’s historical color text.
Beside the point, you say? I do too, but different people have different perspectives on this. Kevin A’s defense “Maybe this seems like a rather niche point to make? but this is what I do – paleoclimate. So I notice and I care :)” applies to them as well.
But herein lies a trap of some importance. Deniers and foot-draggers of various sorts want to get into the weeds, and specialists can easily be enticed into it.
It’s the old battle between precision and accessibility. There’s no size that fits all, here. But xkcd has certainly hit a sweet spot. Kudos.