A Gallery of Hope: Art + Climate
Artists who take climate action, artists who inspire us to act, and a COP28 update
ART MEETS CLIMATE CHANGE
Art has the power to resonate with our deepest emotions. Each brushstroke or note can remind us not only of the world’s beauty, but also our own unique role within it. There are so many artists making beautiful, moving, challenging work about climate change.
That's why I’m so excited by a big change in the Fifth US National Climate Assessment this year - each chapter is headed with a piece of art by one of 92 artists, part of the Art × Climate gallery. It began when the U.S. Global Change Research Program put out a call for art “with the understanding that, together, art and science move people to greater understanding and action.” They received more than 800 submissions in response!
“Art x Climate harnesses the power of the visual arts to show a deeper understanding of how the many impacts of the climate crisis are being felt by artists from across the nation,” Jane Lubchenco, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Forbes. “We are proud to feature nearly 100 artists as a new approach to communicating the urgency of this critical moment for America’s future.”
In 2019, the Economist dubbed Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson “the world’s best known climate-change artist.” His 2003 work, “The Weather Project” flooded the Tate Modern in London’s Turbine Hall with artificial yellow sunlight, meant to evoke a warmer future. In 2018, for his piece “Ice Watch London,” Eliasson imported 24 chunks of ice from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland to the banks of the Thames River. Eliasson arranged them in the face of a clock, where they melted, symbolizing the urgency of the climate issue and our dwindling time to stop it.
As a scientist, I love the work of Jill Pelto, who was inspired by her scientist dad Mauri Pelto's research in glacier studies to turn data into art. “I incorporate scientific data directly into my paintings to engage broad audiences with climate change graphs,” she says. In the painting above, which depicts Atlantic Puffins, Arctic Terns, and Common Terns on a rocky island, Jill incorporates line graphs to illustrate how the birds’ population has risen and fallen since 1999 to 2022. She also paints dashed white lines in the sea to represent “periods of anomaly in sea surface temperature from 2007 to 2021.” In 2020, her data-driven art was featured on the cover of TIME magazine.
I met Diane Burko at a panel we were on together at my alma mater, the University of Toronto. Since then, I’ve followed her on Instagram where I’m inspired by her work “at the intersection of painting and environmental advocacy.” Her art - painting, photography, and time-based media - tackles the climate crisis, but “rather than lingering in dystopia, it celebrates the sublimity of the landscape by honoring the intricate geological and political webs that shape the identity of a place.” She travels with scientists and incorporates their fieldwork and data into her art, and the result is stunning, as you can see in the painting above titled "Roads to Ruin" which uses mixed media to depict the land change in the Amazon basin.
This year, I contributed to a climate-themed special exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. Called, “If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change,” it was guest curated by Jeff Goodell , author of "The Heat Will Kill You First." You can see the exhibition in person or digitally online, including the piece I wrote to accompany the mural by Christine Sun Kim titled "The Sound of Temperature Rising." It wasn’t my first time: a few years ago, I wrote this short essay for the Tate Museum in London on how I see climate change in the work of the famous landscape painter J.M.W. Turner.
Art isn't just confined to galleries and museums; it can be part of our everyday lives. From the images we see on Instagram to what’s hanging on our walls, art is always within our reach. Here are two artists who are leaning into this, helping us learn and share, helping each of us learn and share what we know about climate change.
Cartoons, with their sharp wit and visual storytelling, can open our eyes to new Liesbeth Ton, aka, a cartoonist based in the Netherlands, read my book Saving Us. Since then, she has been having climate conversations and then turning them into smart, funny comics. What a wonderful way to use her voice and her immense talents! She’s collected them on her Substack here, and here’s the comic she drew after she interviewed me.
Colouring books are a great outlet for creativity and stress relief, especially for people like me who aren’t great artists but enjoy the process.makes beautiful prints of everything from the ABCs of climate change to the warming stripes that show how temperature is rising over time.
She’s turned her art on climate solutions into a colouring book that’s available in print or digital form (yes, you can even colour on an ipad or your phone), a perfect Christmas present. It’s just one of the gifts in the climate-friendly holiday guide she’s sourced on her Substack page.
And finally, a COP28 update:
In the last two weeks, I’ve been focused on COP28, the UN climate conference taking place in Dubai. The event wrapped up early Wednesday after countries agreed on a stronger mandate to tackle the root causes of climate change than we had before. But it’s still less than what we need to avoid “dangerous interference with the climate system” and meet our Paris goals.
Many are calling this agreement historic because for the first time ever it calls for an equitable transition away from fossil fuels. However, for the world’s most vulnerable populations this will not be enough to protect them. And that’s why it’s so important to recognize that our collective progress on climate action doesn't depend on global summits. Our future doesn’t have to wait for what world leaders decide. Real change is happening now, in communities around the world, and every one of us has the power to contribute to this fight to protect the people, places, and things we love.
As youth activist Xiye Bastida said, “At the end of the day, the text doesn’t write the future. We do. The real work is outside of negotiations. It’s in community building. It’s in changing systems. We have everything to lose and everyone to gain. So let’s choose to be the people who see beyond an industry and beyond profit. Let’s choose life, let’s choose each other, let’s choose a thriving future.”