The art of communicating climate change

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst  

London-based writer and philosopher Alain de Botton recently shared his thoughts on the environment. In a UN Chronicle essay, de Botton says that climate change is different from threats we’ve faced in the past—whether natural disasters or nuclear warfare—in that it is neither outside our control nor a result of deliberate action. The product of the day-to-day activities of billions of people, it can only be ameliorated through collective effort. “So we are guilty,” he says, “but also unusually powerless.” 

Submitted photo to
from the Czech Republic

Moreover, the global scale of climate change has produced a fundamental shift in how we view the environment. We have, according to de Botton, been forced to abandon our long-held view of nature as something lasting and larger than ourselves—a sentiment captured in a quote from the 17th Century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne: “Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oaks.” 

 “How mindsets have changed,” says de Botton,  

The equation has been reversed. Men are no longer temporary and oak trees eternal. Nature no longer endures. Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the earth. Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. 

And the result? Hysterical sentimentality, he says. We treat nature “like a wounded panda.” But when it comes to enacting change, many of the greatest threats of global change are spatially and temporarily removed from those being asked to act—“our empathetic powers have been stretched to the breaking point.” So in spite of our sentimental regard for nature—and the awareness that this sentimentality suggests—we remain reluctant to make sacrifices.  

Granted, Americans are increasingly skeptical of climate change, as evidenced by a recent Pew study, and the hacked Climate Research Unit emails have done their part to exacerbate skepticism around the world.  But skeptics aside, you may recall another Pew study, wherein global warming ranked last on Americans’ list of policy priorities for 2009. When considered alongside the proportion of Americans who think that global warming is a very or somewhat serious problem (73% in 2008, 65% in 2009), the disconnect is clear. We have the facts and we’re voting no.  

The scientific community finds itself at an interesting juncture then, having traditionally focused communication efforts on identifying and characterizing the problem of climate change. While this will continue to be important, the numbers—and de Botton—suggest that the greater challenge now lies in getting people to care (enough). Climate scientists are well aware of why people should care, but does it make sense to task them with the art of persuasion?  

Perhaps not—for that, there are professionals. De Botton concludes his commentary with a call to artists: “Artists may have no solutions, but they are the ones who can come up with the words and images to make visible and important the most abstract and impersonal of challenges.”  

Carbon Counter in Times Square
Photo Credit:

So how does one make climate change immediately visible and important? Many artistic efforts are already underway, ranging from a photography exhibit at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to a giant carbon counter in Times Square. Groups like Cape Farewell and work to communicate the urgency of climate change through art.  Artist Chris Jordan’s new series depicts global-scale phenomena ranging from tuna consumption to tiger population decline. 
 The success of these efforts is difficult to measure. A recent Pop Matters commentary on the Port Authority exhibit, “Climate Change: Picturing the Science,” says climate communication needs more panache: 

Photographs of melting glaciers, shrinking lakes, and drilling rigs pillaging the landscape are fastened to the wall, covering a large section of the Port Authority Bus Terminal building. Accompanying these images are blocks of text explaining climate change, with headings like “Symptoms”, “Diagnosis”, and “Prognosis”. A graph indicates that if we do not act soon to reduce our carbon-emission rates, a bunch of multi-colored squiggly lines will rise higher over the next hundred years than if we did. There is even a large photograph of a punch card, which probably represents something very factual and scientific.   

If all this sounds as exciting as a dental clinic, that’s because it is. The exhibit is dull, drab, dismal, and didactic. In comparison with the illuminated citadel of Times Square, the art project is a bitter hermit’s hovel. Times Square enchants its patrons; Climate Change: Picturing the Science is a wall to lean on while waiting for the bus.  

But as efforts to communicate climate science become more artistic—as they shift from presenting the facts to imploring emotions and making a case—where will the scientific community fit in? Sound science will always be critical to climate communication efforts, but scientists will once again have to walk a fine line between informing and advocating. Among the unprecedented challenges of climate change is its insistence that scientists engage in conversations about the subjective while maintaining scientific credibility.