Art and Climate Change Communication
Literature, paintings, photography, music, and other art forms are the building blocks of any culture. In this way, they are inextricable from influencing the components of environmental governance.
Communicating environmental issues through a lens of art can make it more accessible to the masses. In fact, this is a tactic that has been used for a very long time.
Prior to the existence of environmentalist organizations, landscape painters from the 14th to the 19th century were the only routine documenters of the outside world. Yes, ecological research scientists, herbarium collectors, and nature lovers also took note of their surroundings. But artists shared their work with the wider public and in painting the same places over time, showed visible alterations in the environment.
Muckrakers in early 20th century America, like photographer Jacob Riis and author Upton Sinclair, shocked the public with their portrayals of the raw reality of living and working conditions in urban environments. Their work caused so much social upheaval that the government (in Riis’s case, even President Teddy Roosevelt) took notice and passed laws tightening regulations in food production, air and water quality, and housing.
One of the most famous examples of artwork affecting environmental governance is Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Prior to the book’s publication and rapid popularity, few people in science, government, or the general public knew of the insidious harms of DDT and other pesticide chemicals. Carson changed the conversation and also caused Americans to reconcile their personal relationships with nature. She arguably stimulated the start of the modern environmental movement.
Iconography in protest — that can affect changes in governance — is highly effective as a communication method. Posters like Greta Thunberg’s “Strike for Climate” emblazoned inblack block letters on a white poster or “Divest” (from fossil fuels) messaging on bright orange backgrounds are just two examples of how activists has used art as a medium to express their dissent.
One important aspect of art that makes it such a successful way to impact environmental policy and thinking is its near universal accessibility. When marginalized groups do not have a say in how their land is governed, they can resort to speaking through visuals. They may be excluded from the places where lawmaking happens, but they can use the tools they do have at their disposal — song, dance, writing, painting, creativity — to catapult their views into those high places. Accessibility is also what makes art a means for community participation, which further enriches a culture and strengthens a voice for change.
To bring this to present day, we can see how imagery has helped spread the urgent emergency of the forest fires consuming California.These fires are utterly devastating the state: millions of families are fleeing to evacuate their homes, power companies are shutting off service to prevent accidental sparks, people are losing their homes, relatives, jobs, schools; entire lives. However, I would not know the grave extent of the damage, as a resident of the east coast, without the photography and videography captured of the burning countryside.
The same goes for news networks headquartered in New York or event the federal government. The images that they receive from their satellite reporters and officials evoke more of an emotional response than written word can. And emotion can drive political change.
Some may argue that these forms do not qualify as art or do not deserve to be analyzed in the same way as historic masterpieces by da Vinci or Michaelangelo or Mozart. I contend that the definition of art is a visual composed with intention that evokes a response from the viewer. That is precisely what these artworks do.
As these many examples over the course of history illustrate, artistic expression can be a powerful tool in stimulating and enforcing environmental governance. Not only do the arts have a relationship with the regulation of the environment, but the arts play a strong role that can heavily influence environmental governance at the local, national, or international level.