Intersection of Climate and the Arts

By Jennifer L. Sokolove, Program Director, Compton Foundation

Why is it that so many people know we’re facing multiple environmental crises, but so few people are actually doing anything about them?

This question has been asked in multiple ways, about many topics having to do with the environment, and increasingly about climate change as it becomes more apparent and urgent. EcoArts Connections (EAC), one of the Compton Foundation’s grantees, is trying to address this question head on, girded with the findings of social and behavioral sciences, by linking artists, scientists, and nonprofit organizations.

Studies have observed that to generate effective action, intellect and emotion must be engaged simultaneously.[1] Yet most attempts to address environmental problems focus on cognition—“We have a problem, let’s come up with a solution.” While this has resulted in lots of solutions, without emotional engagement there is little will to put the solutions into practice. Nor can great passion stand alone. Without scientific underpinnings to ground it in meaningful action, affect dissipates relatively quickly, and the lack of rigorous science or ‘facts’ can make solutions less credible.

EAC’s founding director, Marda Kirn, has a lifelong background in the arts, and has paid particular attention to creativity as a catalyst for both social change and personal transformation. Historically, the arts have been valued not only as entertainment, but also for their ability to inspire people to ponder, question, and reflect, and their affective power to nourish, attract, and move people to action.

Kirn wondered, “Could we bring together the cognitive power of science with the affective power of the arts to co-create performances, exhibits, and other events? In that hour that the marketing people say we have, between when people are deeply affected by something and then go back to their stressed out, busy, doing-the-best-that-they-can daily lives, could we capture their imaginations—engage their minds and hearts—and then offer them practical, non-partisan things they could do (from recycling to running for office) that would close the gap between awareness and action?”

She created EcoArts Connections to bring together science and the arts to advance understanding of climate change and speed the shift to a sustainable future, in essence combining cognition and affect for greater effect. Since 2006, EAC has produced three festivals based in Boulder, Colorado involving as many as 28 collaborating organizations that have presented, co-created, or linked their efforts. EAC activities have been a great success, generating widespread local and national media attention, three to four times the attendance typical for festival events, and new and increased funding for many of the collaborators.

Inspired by EAC in 2006, Jason Neff and dancer/performance artist Michelle Ellsworth team-taught a course called “The Art and Science of Climate” at the University of Colorado. Neff reports, “The students learned the science more quickly, more thoroughly, and more accurately than at any other time in my history as a teacher.” In 2007, EAC initiated a collaboration between the Curious Theatre’s youth playwriting workshop and scientists from CIRES (the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences). After seeing the 10-minute plays written by high school students and performed by professional actors, one audience member commented, “I’ve been reading about climate change for months. This is the first time it’s affected me personally. What can I do?”

Boulder, where EAC is headquartered, has the highest density of climate scientists in the world due to the international labs and research centers based there (among them EAC collaborators: National Center for Atmospheric Research, NOAA, Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, and Denver Museum of Nature and Science), and the news about climate change grows worse every day. Due to the urgency of the problem, EAC has recently shifted from producing local festivals to working nationally to help others explore the opportunities generated by new combinations of art and science.

EAC has inspired innovative organizational and funding partnerships along the way, from small to large. These include a major exhibit that designed and presented with the American Meteorological Society called “Forecast: Communicating Climate and Weather,” which will hang at the convention center hosting the Society’s annual conference and will remain in place for several additional months

Blog of the American Meteorological Society; an EAC-inspired NOAA grant to an arts/science project called FLOW, spearheaded by Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology with artist Mary Miss and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, that will work to make sustainability personal, visceral, tangible, and actionable on the White River in Indiana; and the EAC-initiated national Arts-Science Working Group, which brings together people working in more than 15 national associations and federal agencies in the arts and in the sciences to explore the possibilities for collaboration on climate change and sustainability.

Environmental Education and Attitudes: Emotions and Beliefs are What is Needed,” by Julie Ann Pooley and Moira O’Connor,Environment and Behavior, September 2000; Online version available at: “Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change,” edited by Susanne C. Moser (UCAR) and Lisa Dilling (CIRES), Cambridge University Press, 2007. The Affective Domain: “Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009: An Audience Segmentation Analysis,” by The Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, 2009. “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aids, and the Interested Public,” Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University, 2009, CRED.COLUMBIA.EDU/GUIDE