If CO2 came out of the tailpipe dark and smelly, strict controls on emitting it would probably have been in effect long ago. Instead, CO2 is invisible and odorless. We exhale it with every breath. Most of us are unaware that our cars spew vast quantities of it.
In a society in which visual image is paramount, how can we show people the vast quantities of CO2 comes out of their tailpipe? How can the invisible be made visible?
Much of the effort to visualize carbon has been at the macro scale, showing computer models of CO2 emissions at the planetary and state level. NASA recently released a video modeling CO2 as it swirls through the planetary atmosphere.
Others have also created simple, powerful visual models of CO2 pollution.Carbon visuals, a UK company specializing in producing images and videos of CO2 emissions, uses giant blue balls to show the actual volumes of CO2 being emitted by automobiles. The blue ball in the photo represents 1 metric ton of CO2, or the volume produced by the average US driver in about 2 months of driving. New York City produces 54,000,000 balls in a year.
All of the above images are models, not actual visual images of CO2. Imaging CO2 has been extremely difficult because of the properties of CO2’s electronic transitions. Researchers are presently working on using lasers in the infrared spectrum to excite CO2 molecules so that they can be imaged.
The successful imaging of CO2 spewing from a tailpipe could lead to an important breakthrough in human understanding and consciousness, similar to the breakthroughs resulting from the first film of a horse running or the first images of Earth from the moon.
The representation of CO2 need not be left only to scientists. Visual artists, actors, and poets can make the invisible visible, the unreal real, and the unimportant urgent.
Our ability to reduce CO2 emissions rests largely on our grasp of our personal role in the CO2 crisis, and our resolve to minimize our contribution to the problem. Our grasp and our resolve depend in large part upon our ability to see and communicate visually the CO2 we and others emit.