The Future Haiku (Photo: Gregory Johnson)
The reports of the UN's Panel on Climate Change are critically important but notoriously dense reading. IPCC scientist Gregory Johnson tells host Steve Curwood about his personal project to write haiku poems to make the reports more understandable.
CURWOOD: The periodic assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC rely on a couple of thousand scientists from around the world. They produce a detailed appraisal of humanity’s impact on the climate and what that means now and in the future. These reports are notoriously dense and, well, hard to read. NOAA scientist Greg Johnson was a lead author for part of the assessment published last fall and he's come up with a simple, elegant way to communicate the complex scientific findings.
JOHNSON: Seas rise as they warm. Rates quicken last century. Melting ice joins in.
CURWOOD: Oceanographer Gregory Johnson joins me now to share more of these IPCC haikus. Welcome to Living on Earth, Greg.
JOHNSON: Hi. Thanks, Steve.
CURWOOD: So how did you come up with the idea: IPCC as haiku?
JOHNSON: Well, actually, I was sick one weekend, and I was really sick enough to be unable to leave the house. And so I was trying to figure out what I would do for the weekend, and for some reason, I thought I would reread the summary for policy makers from the Working Group I report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that’s the one on the physical science basis of climate change. And like you said, they are very dense documents. So I was reading this, and I was having trouble concentrating.
CURWOOD: Wait. You’d worked on this. You knew what was supposed to be there, and you couldn’t stay focused?
JOHNSON: Well, I was a little sick. [LAUGHS] But, anyways, I thought it would help fix it in my mind, if I tried to compose a haiku for each of the subsections of the report. But I sat down and composed these haikus. It took most of the morning and a little bit past lunch, and then my wife said, “What on Earth are you doing?”
JOHNSON: And at that point, I sort of thought, Well, what am I doing? And I realized I could make them into an illustrated booklet to share with friends and family if I added some illustrations.
CURWOOD: So you’re an oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and you’re a lead author for the Working Group chapter on oceans, but this is not any kind of official document.
JOHNSON: That’s correct. These are solely my own creation. Any views or opinions expressed in these are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States government, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change or any other entity.
CURWOOD: So, these poems basically go in order of the bullet points for the report. Will you read the first point as haiku please? It’s called History - Earth.
JOHNSON: That’s right.
Big, fast carbon surge:
Ice melts, oceans heat and rise.
Air warms by decades.
CURWOOD: So, that’s essentially the recent history of the earth’s climate in 17 syllables, huh?
JOHNSON: That’s right.
CURWOOD: So remind us of the rules of haiku.
JOHNSON: So the rules in English are different from the rules in Japanese, but the strict rules are a syllable count of 5-7-5 in the three lines. They’re supposed to be a reference to the season, and the Japanese have specific words for these I think. And these don’t necessarily have references to seasons in them, but they do have references to change in climate, and I thought they’d give me a pass on that. And they’re also supposed to have what the Japanese call a cutting word, sort of a transition. Not all of these do have that actually, but they do all follow the 5-7-5 rule.
CURWOOD: Now, will you read two more for us that are closely related? They are called Response and Attribution.
JOHNSON: Yes, the first one is Response.
We burn more carbon
Air warms for decades but seas
And then Attribution:
Our industry has
warmed oceans, air, lands, changed rains
melted ice, raised seas
CURWOOD: Incredible how so few words can be so powerful. What got you going with haiku?
JOHNSON: I post almost exclusively in haiku on Facebook. I find that it helps me be in the present. It tends to link my posts a little more closely to nature and what’s going on around me. And it also limits the number of posts, which my friends probably like.
CURWOOD: Now, it seems that all of your poems are accompanied by a water color painting—the last one about industry goes along with a painting of an oilrig. There’s another with a painting of windmills on a rolling hill. Will you read that please?
JOHNSON: Let’s see.
Fast, strong action will
Reduce future warming but
Rising seas certain
CURWOOD: So, Greg, what kind of responses have you gotten so far from this project?
JOHNSON: They’ve really been quite positive. But I have to say, actually, it took some time, on my part, to get up the courage to put this out there. This is, of course, a distillation of, as you said, work of 209 lead authors, 50 review editors, a thousand expert reviewers, so a huge amount of work went into this. But the response actually to the haikus have been remarkably positive.
CURWOOD: What kind of response have you gotten from your IPCC co-authors?
JOHNSON: They enjoy it. I did make a number of little booklets on my own dime, and have given them to friends and colleagues and authors. And it’s been a positive response from them as well.
CURWOOD: Have you run out of the booklets?
JOHNSON: Pretty much. Yes.
CURWOOD: What’s your publisher say?
JOHNSON: I don’t have a publisher. These were are self-published. I can’t actually profit from these in any way because they’re related to my work, and that’s just one of the rules of my employer.
CURWOOD: Well, we are just about out of time, Greg, but I wonder if you will read one final haiku for us. Perhaps the one that you titled “Future”?
Forty years from now
Children will live in a world
Shaped by our choices.
CURWOOD: Greg, you have children?
JOHNSON: I have a daughter.
CURWOOD: Who’s how old?
JOHNSON: She’s 17 now.
CURWOOD: So, when she’s 57...
JOHNSON: ...the world will be a very different place, I think, and it will depend on what choices we make. We’re living in a world now that’s already shaped by our choices.
CURWOOD: Greg Johnson is a NOAA oceanographer and lead author of the Working Group I report chapter on oceans. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.