The role of the arts: creative communications

In addition to being something that people can take pleasure in, the arts are often seen as a way in which values can be reinforced or opinions can be challenged. The arts are taken here to mean modes of expression that use skill or imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others. As such, the arts represent a great potential for the communication of climate change. But how can this be done effectively, and who stands to benefit from such creative communications?

In 2005, in an article written for Grist (an American non-profit online magazine that publishes environmental news), environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote the following about climate change:

“But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?”

McKibben is right: the arts give us a way to experience climate change emotionally, and it is out there. Since the early 2000s there have actually been a great many books, poems, plays, and even operas written about climate change. Many of these have enjoyed great critical success and have also paved the way for organisations such as Julie’s Bicycle, Cape Farewell, and Invisible Dust to develop and support a cultural response to climate change.

While the arts have the potential to draw attention to the issues surrounding climate change and may contribute to a shift in attitudes, they can also distance the problems that they seek to address. For that reason, the arts as a medium through which audiences can themselves take action on climate change needs considering. However, in order to do this, a truly interdisciplinary approach is needed between artists, scientists and the communities they are communicating with.

In a 2008 interview with the Times Higher Education, Sir David King, the UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, observed that climate change was “not just a scientific problem” and that universities and research councils needed to be doing more to promote an interdisciplinary approach to tackling climate change.

In the past few years, The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK have heeded this call, providing funding to interdisciplinary collaborations that aim to better understand the role that the arts can play in helping to not just reflect and consider but also activate and mobilise. Projects, such as Dear Climate, are engaging people globally by helping them to better understand what they can do to reduce the emissions that cause climate change at a local level. Recent research is backing this up, demonstrating how paintings, storytelling, poetry, and theatre can all be used to tap into the “gut response” McKibben refers to.

Despite these successes, there is still much to be done to ensure practitioners and researchers in the arts and sciences collaborate in the most effective way possible. Many climate scientists are willing to present their research findings to artists so that they can draw a pretty picture or choreograph a dynamic dance routine to communicate their research; far fewer are willing to ask these same artists to become involved in the research at the very start. In doing so they are not only neglecting the expertise of the artist as a researcher but are also missing out on an opportunity to critically develop a better understanding of how and why that research can be used to help empower the wider society.

Similarly, it is unrealistic to expect all members of the public to simply ‘come to you’. As with universities and research institutes, art galleries and theatres represent a physical and psychological barrier that many communities are either unable or unwilling to cross.

It is therefore a challenge to both artists and scientists to ensure that any communications are truly diverse and inclusive in their approach and delivery. By working both with each other and the wider society, the sciences and the arts have the potential to create meaningful initiatives so that people not only know more about the damage caused by human-caused climate change, but also have the tools and confidence to begin to address it.

Burning questions

Do the arts need to take more of a lead in driving effective dialogue around climate change?

Are scientists willing to embrace working in a truly interdisciplinary environment?

Is communication through the arts only for a privileged few?

By Sam Illingworth

Sam Illingworth is a senior lecturer in Science Communication, with a background in the atmospheric sciences and expertise in public engagement and outreach.

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