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The Role of Art in Climate Change

By: Ava H.

The climate crisis requires several areas of background in order for environmental action to successfully take place. Take artists, for example. Although artists may be perceived by some as a meaningless career, many can successfully push movements in the right direction with their creative form of activism, as it helps everyday people become more engaged in the political process of issues. If insightful climate change art can bring to light the urgent need for climate action, then citizens will feel more inclined to push forward the climate agenda to politicians, causing politicians to feel ongoing pressure from citizens to act.

Olafur Eliasson helped push the climate agenda forward with “Ice Watch” in 2014, where he brought blocks of glacial ice from Greenland and placed them as an art exhibit in front of Tate Modern in London. Eliasson strategically positioned these melting ice blocks in a megacity to help bring awareness to millions of the climate crisis’s urgency, as climate denial can be an easy trap to fall into when one is not exposed upfront to the scientific data that displays its detrimental impacts. London’s population continues to increase, which will result in further climate depletion as resources will be exhausted, pollutants will undermine citizens’ health, and several other worrisome outcomes. The catastrophic effects are already appearing in such a populous city (of more than 9 million people), as London experiences increasingly hot summers (with average summer temperatures of 61 degrees Fahrenheit in 1950, up to 64 degrees in 2019). Eliasson tugged at the hearts of the many people who viewed this exhibit, as they observed the natural beauty of these unique ice glaciers, only to sadly realize that they are indeed melting.

Visitors interact with "Ice Watch". Photo by: Justin Sutcliffe

Last summer, I was able to visit London, and my family and I happened to stumble upon Olafur Eliasson’s featured summer exhibit at the Tate Modern. Not only was there a collage of photographs and text that displayed the significance of “Ice Watch”, but the whole exhibit revolved around the theme of the realities of climate change, as the exhibit was called “In Real Life.” One of the immersive works that stood out the most to me was a tunnel of orange fog, called "Blind Passenger." Walking through this mysterious path was quite eerie, as climate models show that future heat will likely cause some parts of the world to be uninhabitable. This orange path is ingrained in my mind as a worrisome glimpse into what climate inaction will result in.

Eliasson's "Blind Passenger." Photo by: Anders Sune Berg

Not only did this exhibit produce important awareness needed for climate change, but Olafur Eliasson helped implement more sustainable practices within the museum. The Tate’s restaurant was now offering an Artist Set Menu of vegetarian food that was ethically sourced, helping to educate people on the importance of reducing meat intake. By eating a more plant-based diet, food production can increase in a more sustainable manner for a rapidly growing human population. Cattle ranching permanently destroys natural habitats and dramatically increases the rate of deforestation, so if more people become inspired to eat less meat, the extinction of species due to habitat loss will decrease. Animal agriculture is detrimental to the environment partially because of methane production from livestock. Methane is a much more powerful gas than carbon dioxide, which is why reducing meat intake is increasingly important to decrease greenhouse gases to reduce the effects of climate disruption.

Since I visited this museum once before this, I noticed that this time around the gift shop included an increased abundance of climate change books, including Losing Earth, a book about how scientists almost prevented climate change in the 1970s, and Drawdown, a comprehensive book with insightful solutions to reverse global warming. The addition of environmental books in a traditional art shop proved to be promising, as many museum visitors are likely to walk away from Eliasson’s gallery of climate emphasis wondering how they can do better to help the environment, and perhaps might not know where to start. However, the display of various environmental books introduces the idea of self-education to a mainstream group of individuals, which helps spread awareness for climate action. Once more citizens become educated on the most urgent issue of our time, motivation will spark people to push governments on all levels to implement laws to help prevent the current rate of climate change. Scientists have already provided the tools to address the climate crisis, and society will choose whether or not to implement these solutions in a timely manner.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you recall viewing any environmental art that impacted you? If yes, what qualities of the art piece helped to create such a message?

  • Does art have the potential to persuade policymakers to create better climate policies? Why or why not?

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