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The ‘art’ of climate change communication

Mar 20, 2013 by | 3 Comments

This art­icle was ori­gin­ally pub­lished by Guardian Sustainable Business 18.03.13. At the end of the ori­ginal piece I have added links to a series of sug­ges­tions left by com­ments on the Guardian piece, and on twitter, of other ini­ti­at­ives at the inter­face between cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion and the arts. Please add any more examples missing in the com­ments here! And thanks very much to everyone who pointed out these other initiatives.

Over the past decade, interest in the ‘sci­ence’ of com­mu­nic­ating cli­mate change has flour­ished. Psychologists, social mar­keters and cam­paigners have been united in the quest for sys­tem­atic, reli­able evid­ence with which to pro­mote sus­tain­able behaviour.

But while the sci­ence of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion is clearly an essen­tial piece of the puzzle, might there not be an ‘art’ to it too?

For indi­viduals and organ­isa­tions com­mu­nic­ating cli­mate change, it is easy to forget that most people don’t live their lives in a series of dis­lo­cated beha­viours that can be influ­enced or nudged in a more sus­tain­able dir­ec­tion. Ask your­self: what are the things that make you laugh, inspire you, or fill your con­ver­sa­tions with friends? For most of us, the answer will involve cul­ture, not cognition.

It fol­lows that mobil­ising our cul­tural and cre­ative resources might be as important for public engage­ment with cli­mate change as tech­no­lo­gical or polit­ical changes – and there is evid­ence that this is starting to happen. To take one top­ical example, the charity Do The Green Thing (a reli­ably cre­ative and unpre­dict­able group) are pub­lishing a series of posters by a leading artist throughout March, under the heading of “cre­ativity versus cli­mate change”. These are not po-faced posters, but playful pro­voca­tions – and they stick in your mind for that reason.

A con­fer­ence planned for June in Aberystwyth will focus on the poten­tial for syn­theses between sci­ence and art in responding to cli­mate change. Uncivilisation, a music, lit­er­ature and storytelling fest­ival (organ­ised by a net­work of writers, artists and thinkers in search of “new stories for troubled times”) is now in its fourth year. The cam­paign group Platform con­tinues to oppose BP’s links with the Tate Gallery by using innov­ative methods like altern­ative audio tours, which chal­lenge the legit­imacy of oil-sponsored cul­ture.

And organ­isa­tions like Artists Project Earth (a group of artists, sci­ent­ists, journ­al­ists, envir­on­ment­al­ists, film makers and authors) have been working for many years to sup­port cli­mate change and envir­on­mental campaigning.

But given the import­ance of the issue, it is sur­prising how little overlap there has been between the social sci­ence of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion and the cre­ative world.

That art provides a vehicle for bringing dry polit­ical sen­ti­ment to life is cer­tainly not a new obser­va­tion – but save for a few not­able excep­tions, there has been a gaping hole where cre­ative energy should be.

Climate change theatre and films are thin on the ground. The situ­ation is barely any dif­ferent in the world of lit­er­ature and storytelling. While there are a handful of examples of cli­mate change-oriented novels, it does not seem to have fired the ima­gin­a­tion of authors. But while the poten­tial for storytelling to make the invis­ible, often abstract concept of cli­mate change tan­gible has so far evaded nov­el­ists, some cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­jects are starting to explore the territory.

A set of beau­ti­fully shot films telling the stories of people’s lives affected by the chan­ging cli­mate in the US state of Wisconsin are an eye-catching entry point to a set of edu­ca­tional mater­ials designed to aid teaching about cli­mate change.

And closer to home, a pro­ject aimed spe­cific­ally at over­coming the lim­it­a­tions of con­ven­tional cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies (ie that they tend to reach only a very narrow group of the pop­u­la­tion) offers an exciting blend of art and social science.

Named the Aspects pro­ject, it rep­res­ents an attempt to con­nect dis­cus­sion about cli­mate change to people’s everyday lives through the medium of digital storytelling.

The Aspects web­site hosts a series of short films, fea­turing people who have a story to tell about their lives, about the weather, about their local com­munities – and indir­ectly about cli­mate change.

What’s inter­esting about the Aspects approach is that while the medium appeals on a cul­tural level – films, storytelling, and anec­dotes about the world around us – the films are also put­ting into prac­tice good prin­ciples of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion. The abstract, invis­ible nature of cli­mate change is rendered real through everyday stories, while the fact that the storytellers are mem­bers of the public, rather than act­iv­ists or cam­paigners, cre­ates a pos­itive social norm.

Typically, the chal­lenge of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion is thought to require sys­tem­atic evid­ence about public atti­tudes, soph­ist­ic­ated models of beha­viour change and the rig­orous applic­a­tion of social sci­entific research. All of this is true, but it is human stories, not carbon tar­gets, that cap­ture people’s attention.

The sci­ence of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion is essen­tial to engage people’s minds, but the art of enga­ging people’s ima­gin­a­tions may be just as important.

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  • »»»»»»»»»»»»»»>
    From Hannah Bird

    This report — pro­duced back in 2010 — is some­what out of date now but still lists a sub­stan­tial body of work in this area.

    Julie’s Bicycle —

    From Joe Smith:

    Important topic, though in fact live­lier than your piece sug­gests.
    A group of us (tagged Mediating Change group, based at Open University Geography Dept/Open Space, but also Sheffield School of Architecture and Ashden Trust plus others) put together a series of pod­casts that turned into a book. You can get it all at iTunesU (free):
    The timeline is pretty packed with cul­tural responses to cli­mate change. The UK has been par­tic­u­larly sig­ni­ficant in the field, with Ashden Trust leading the way, Tipping Point, Cape Farewell and more.
    Another pub­lic­a­tion (ATLAS: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World) that brings together arts/design and envir­on­mental change research and politics ini­ti­ated by the same group, but bigger, more entries, lots of pics. It grew out of the Interdependence Day pro­ject:

  • CLIMARTE is an Australian inde­pendant not for profit har­nesses the cre­ative power of the Arts to inform, engage and inspire action on cli­mate change by

    Producing, pro­moting and facil­it­ating Arts events.

    Providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and inform­a­tion on sus­tain­able Arts prac­tice at an indi­vidual and organ­isa­tional level.

    Creating an alli­ance of Arts prac­ti­tioners and organ­isa­tions that advocate for imme­diate, effective and cre­ative action on cli­mate change.

    Throughout his­tory the arts have played a major role in recording and reflecting the state of human society and its rela­tion­ship with the nat­ural world. Indeed, for some his­tor­ical periods it is only through the arts that we have been able to learn about our past. But some­times we have also needed the arts to be a cata­lyst for change, a call to action, a pricking of humanity’s col­lective con­science. We believe that now is one of those times.

  • […] The ‘art’ of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion (March 20) […]

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