Crisis and Change


In a short story written by Zadie Smith, “The Embassy of Cambodia”, a character named Andrew, who came from Nigeria, had the following to say about the Nigerian government:

It’s like this bureaucratic Nigerian government—they are the greatest at numerology, hiding figures, changing them to suit their purposes. I have a name for it: I call it ‘demonology.’ Not ‘numerology’—‘demonology.’

Numerology is, of course, not a Nigerian government specialty. It is the intent of this article to demonstrate that numerology is very common, at least in the field of climate action. Numerology is, according to Wikipedia, “the pseudoscientific belief in a divine or mystical relationship between a number and one or more coinciding events.” It is akin to magic. Many of us might have experienced it first-hand without even knowing. We are exposed to scientific surveys and statistical numbers every day. A company might claim that their revenues grew 22 percent this year, or the stock market fell by 2 percent at closing, or our own body mass index (BMI) can be measured constantly to monitor our “health.” What is hidden behind the seemingly benign numbers is a bag full of magic tricks to deceive and distort. As the saying goes, “read between the lines.” Statistics has become numerology. In our increasingly information-saturated society, numbers play an important role: efficiently communicating an idea across. The same is true for climate change. We often see corporations and national governments report flying colours with beautiful photographs of nature on their emission reduction progress, but what is truly happening behind these numbers? Except for the experts, stakeholders, and investors, who have genuine interests in these numbers, many of us might take them at face value. But a closer look revealed much more. What is important isn’t about what is shown, but what is hidden.