Introducing the Climate Bathtub

Understanding the Climate Emergency using the Climate Bathtub Concept.

As humans we find it easy to imagine what happens when we change things which are in a static state (on or off) we are not so good at imagining things which are changing over time (a dynamic system). This quote from Donella Meadows in her book “Thinking in Systems” sums it up nicely.

“Systems fool us by presenting themselves – or we fool ourselves by seeing the world – as a series of events… Events can be spectacular (victories, tragedies)… they hook our emotions… its endlessly engrossing and constantly surprising because that way of seeing the world has no predictive or explanatory value… We are less likely to be surprised if we can see how events accumulate over time into patterns of behaviour.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

Traditionally, when experts try to describe such systems they use graphs and mathematical equations to represent those “patterns of behaviour” which, does not make them easy to understand and accessible to everyone. Global warming and the behaviour of greenhouse gas levels is one such example of a dynamic system. The Climate Bathtub concept provides a simple, visual representation which is much easier  to grasp and is the topic for the next instalment in our Climate Concepts journey. Click on the link to view or latest video.


To truly understand why we are in a Climate Emergency we need to be comfortable with the idea that greenhouse gas levels are in a changing state (a dynamic equilibrium). Reducing greenhouse gas levels is not like flicking a switch, the response is not instant, it’s more like trying to change the course of a massive container ship, it responds very slowly. As we start to reduce our  greenhouse gas emissions the global temperature will only stop rising after we reach the balance point with absorption and even then there will be a delayed response.

The use of a bath tub to help visualise the changing level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was first introduced by Professor John Sterman at MIT and further developed by the team at Climate interactive. I found it a really simple and effective way of showing the level of change we need to make and the urgency with which we need to act without having to use graphs. I believe this makes it much more accessible to people from non-scientific backgrounds. You can also try it out in real life in your own bath or sink but take care not to cause a flood if you do!

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