If art is about beauty, spectacle, aesthetic experience, and somehow grasping towards a better world, then climate change is its antithesis, a steady and incremental destruction, unspectacular in its production of untold catastrophe and remorseless in its disproportionate targeting of the poor. A climate writer, Rob Nixon, calls this ‘slow violence’. That sounds about right.
Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that human induced changes to the climate are already taking place. We are probably already set for a 1.5C rise in global temperature. The Global Footprint Network (GFN) estimates we consume the equivalent resources of 1.6 planets. We’ve exhausted all of this year’s supply of natural resources. (Earth Overshoot Day was on 13 August 2015.) That means that already more harm has been done to the planet that can be easily undone and it’s only August. We are the last generation with any capacity to fight climate change.
COP21, the international climate change conference, happening in Paris this December, gives hope for strong global diplomatic commitment to a low carbon future. The governments of 196 countries will make a universal climate change agreement and pledge to limit their future greenhouse gas emissions. Already, there have been unprecedented agreements between the US and China.
Scientific advice has established consensus that a long-term goal of no more than 2C warming above pre-industrial levels is necessary. However, to meet the target will require much stronger limits on emissions that any governments have yet agreed. A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has calculated from predicted emissions pledges at the summit that emissions will continue to rise beyond 2030. This puts the 2C target out of reach.
For the commitments made in Paris to be ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, and for long-term emissions goals to be met, we need to find new stories to counteract the dominant ones. Somehow, we have to reveal human interdependence, reciprocity and cooperation in the face of crisis. These stories need to allow us to believe again in effective action. Who can tell these stories? The answer, of course, is the artists, who are crying out in protest.
Artists 4 Paris Climate 2015, a collective of leading contemporary visual artists, has a two pronged action plan. During COP21, art projects will be displayed in the public spaces of the Conference’s “Global Village” in Greater Paris. With every artwork sold, a matching symbolic action will be made in the fight against climate change and desertification, across sites in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Artists will be displaying provocative drawings on billboards in the city and art installations will allow the imaginative possibility of healing from the consequences of global warming.
Occupy Design has commissioned a series of poster designs and memes called Time to Act to challenge attitudes ahead of the conference (see gallery below). They will be used to bolster the campaign on the streets of Paris in December and on the walls of social media throughout the year. Even Ben and Jerry’s has created a new ice cream flavour (‘Save Our Swirled’) in their own campaign for climate justice ahead of the summit.
Arts and culture are uniquely placed to challenge the dominant capitalist worldview, which Naomi Klein contends is at the heart of the ecological crisis. The language of morality, futuristic and optimistic imagination, and the articulation of passionate indignation belong firmly to the creative mind. For the arts to belong to a climate movement finding its voice on the world stage, their own environmental sustainability must precede them in counter-cultural defiance. As the old adage goes, practice what you preach.