Climate change art and politicisation

By Max Leighton

Figure 1 “Ice Watch” by Olafur Eliasson at the Place du Panthéon. The blocks of glacial ice taken from Greenland melted away from 3rd to 12th December 2015, during the Paris COP21 international climate negotiations.

Artists have contributed to the understanding of many of our greatest challenges; from the wrath of conflict and the spread of disease, to explorations into what it means to be human. From the early 2000s, artists all over the world have begun to engage more directly with the poster-child of humanity’s 21st century issues: climate change. Grown out of the soils of environmental activism, climate change art has become an established genre in its own right, with the age of the Anthropocene now an inspiration for art practitioners, curators, and educators alike (Nurmis 2016). Collaborations between artists and climate scientists have radical potential to open and diversify how, we as a society, learn to live with climate change. These collaborations are creating “spaces of possibilities” (Kagan 2015) for open-ended conversations between artists, scientists and society.

The mountain of evidence under the disciplinary rubric of Global Environmental Change (GEC), raises considerable, urgent and uncertain questions for our societies to answer; from the political (e.g. Tschakert 2012), economic (e.g. Heal 2017) and cultural (Adger et al. 2015), down to the deep eternal human dilemmas typically wrestled with through philosophy, religion and mythology (e.g. Hulme 2014). Despite the important progress made on key challenges within climate science, persistent barriers remain around transitioning from awareness and concern to action, communicating within deeply polarized environments, and dealing with the growing sense of overwhelm and hopelessness (Moser 2016). Both artists and many climate scientists now share a joint concern for how the public engages with their work (Kagan 2015), and as Smith and Howe (2015: 201) caricature, with due respect to the scientific enterprise: “artists can scream, scientists can’t.”

There is increasing interest around narrative, visual and performing arts (Galafassi et al. 2018); for instance, a project I am currently involved with uses storytelling techniques to make sense out of the rich, but messy knowledge gained from an ongoing workshop series interrogating complex water-related issues with local government, the private sector, academics and civil society. Dozens of noteworthy exhibitions, such as Boulder (2007), London and Copenhagen (2009), Paris (2012), New York (2013), Boston (2014), and Melbourne (2015), have placed visual art specifically themed around climate change on the map. A number of performance art projects led by Arts House Melbourne, for example, have used role-play to simulate disaster scenarios with the public, such as a flood event, turning the exhibition building into an Emergency Relief Centre for 24-hours. This project foregrounded the role of artists as an alternative experimental lens, rather than adding them in as mere communicators, or at worst, propogandists (Kagan 2015); not limiting artists to ‘science communication,’ is fresh, even radical, and proving curiously promising (Robin 2018).

Whilst this blog fully endorses art engaging with climate change, practitioners must navigate a politically and culturally polarised environment. Artistic disciplines, and academia in general, are typically practiced by individuals who are politically liberal or left-wing. Around 50% of the general public supports right-wing or conservative parties, compared to less than 12% of academics (Carl 2017). This ideological homogeneity is likely, in part, a consequence of people who have a strong desire to regularly seek out new ideas and experiences (scored as trait openness on the Big 5 personality test) also tend to hold left-liberal beliefs. These individuals are often more attracted to careers in the creative industries and academia, which carries a risk of bias. Within the social sciences, for example, a noteworthy group of social psychology scholars have warned against a lack of political diversity in their field steering researchers away from important but controversial topics and embedding left-liberal values in research methods (Duarte et al. 2015). These potential risks are unlikely to be resolved quantitively or instrumentally, however, the purpose of this blog is to suggest that artists and climate scientists may do well to engage with other perspectives and political persuasions. In light of the current political situation in the UK with the EU Referendum and the currents of populism around the globe, even projects with no political motivation must still tread carefully (Nurmis 2016). We make great efforts to achieve diversity with respect to gender, class and race; going forward, we may well be wise to give attention to political diversity, particularly in the context of climate change.


Adger, W. N., Barnett, J., Brown, K., Marshall, N., & O’brien, K. 2013. Cultural dimensions of climate change impacts and adaptation. Nature Climate Change3(2), 112.

Kagan, S. 2015. Artistic research and climate science: transdisciplinary learning and spaces of possibilities. Journal of Science Communication14(1), C07.

Galafassi, D., Kagan, S., Milkoreit, M., Heras, M., Bilodeau, C., Bourke, S. J., … & Tàbara, J. D. 2018. ‘Raising the temperature’: the arts in a warming planet. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 31, 71-79.

Heal, G. 2017. The economics of the climate. Journal of Economic Literature55(3), 1046-63.

Hulme, M. 2014. Climate change and virtue: an apologetic. Humanities3(3), 299-312.

Moser, S. C. 2016. Reflections on climate change communication research and practice in the second decade of the 21st century: what more is there to say? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 7(3), 345-369.

Nurmis, J. 2016. Visual climate change art 2005–2015: discourse and practice. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change7(4), 501-516.

Robin, L. 2018. Environmental humanities and climate change: understanding humans geologically and other life forms ethically. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change9(1), e499.

Tschakert, P. 2012. From impacts to embodied experiences: tracing political ecology in climate change research. Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography112(2), 144-158

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