Seattle scientist distills 2,200-page report into haiku

Sandi Doughton The Seattle Times

SEATTLE - There’s little lyrical language to be found in the most recent international report on climate change. The document from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) runs to 2,200 pages and is crammed with technical details about greenhouse gas emissions, rising sea levels and atmospheric circulation.

Seattle oceanographer Gregory Johnson was a lead author of the chapter on marine measurements, and even he was having a hard time wrapping his head around the massive compilation. So when a bad cold kept him in the house one weekend, Johnson decided to distill the report to its essence via a centuries-old Japanese art form: haiku.

The result is a virtual booklet that is riding a wave of celebrity on the Web and in the Twittersphere.

“I was surprised that as many people responded as positively as they did,” said Johnson. “It’s been tweeted a thousand times, or something.”

Online commenters penned companion verses, several teachers plan to use the booklet in their classrooms and fans are clamoring to translate Johnson’s work into Hindi, Italian, German, French and Luxembourgish. Mother Jones blogger Chris Mooney praised Johnson for summing up climate change in an “understandable, and even moving, way.”

Johnson took as his template the IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers,” crafting a haiku for each of 19 main points. Where the summary devotes two pages and four graphs to global warming’s impacts on ice and snow - a topic that takes up more than 100 pages in the full report - Johnson boils it down to 17 syllables.

Glaciers and ice sheets

melt worldwide, speed increasing

Sea ice, snow retreat

Johnson also illustrates the poems with simple watercolors, ranging from a sunlit iceberg to smokestacks and a swing set on a grassy slope. The latter is paired with the verse:

Forty years from now

children will live in a world

shaped by our choices

Haiku, with its familiar 5-7-5 cadence, might seem like an odd format for a scientist to embrace - but Johnson was already well acquainted with it. For the past few years, he’s been composing Facebook posts in haiku as a way to keep his message brief and positive.

Like most scientists, though, Johnson’s professional life is all about complexity. That’s part of what made the haiku exercise appealing.

“It does make you focus and distill things,” he said. “Another nice thing about haiku is that it generally took me away from technical language.”

He never intended anyone except family and friends to see the finished product. But they were so enchanted they urged him to make it more widely available.

Johnson was wary.

“It took me a little while to get up the courage to put this out there,” he said. “It’s a highly personal interpretation.”

Eventually, he agreed to allow Sightline, an environmental think tank in Seattle, to post the booklet on its website. Within two weeks of publication last month, the post received nearly 40,000 hits and was reposted by Salon, Huffington Post and Yes! Magazine, said senior communications strategist Anna Fahey.

“I think there’s a hunger for a simple and clear summary of a subject that usually comes with all kinds of jargon and unfathomably large numbers,” she said.

In combination with Johnson’s paintings, the spare verses are also evocative in a way that scientific reports are not, Fahey added.

“What’s striking is how Greg got the facts in there, but also made this beautifully elegant and emotional case for why it matters.”

Before he went public with the project, Johnson got permission from his bosses at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. All the work was done on his own time and is not an official government document, he stressed.

And despite calls for a line of T-shirts or a mass-produced version of the booklet, both Johnson and Sightline say they have no intention of profiting from the pamphlet.

“We’re excited about providing it as an open-source, educational resource,” Fahey said. “But it’s the way of viral content that we don’t have complete control over what people do with it.”

The Sightline post has already attracted comments from global warming skeptics, but Johnson prefers not to engage in what he considers mainly a political debate. His work on long-term ocean monitoring has convinced him that some changes caused by global warming are detectable now, and more are certain in the future.

Haiku and watercolors won’t change that reality - nor are they likely to change the minds of those who don’t believe the phenomenon is real. But if his booklet inspires some people to at least read the IPCC summary report, Johnson says he’ll be happy.

“This is a very modest little piece of work. To be honest, I don’t have any big aspirations for it.”

Lindsey Wasson / Seattle Times NOAA oceanographer Gregory Johnson holds an original image of his watercolor haiku book at his home in Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle, Jan. 2, 2014.