In my PhD one of my central questions is “what role visual artists play in addressing climate change-related topics?” Therefore, I am reading a lot about the (general) communication around climate change. Now that we are faced with the Covid-19 crisis, I feel I am seeing some interesting parallels and differences.
Responses range from understanding to downplaying
Climate change triggers all sorts of responses. From understanding, sympathy and the will for action to feeling overwhelmed, panicked or annoyed by the omnipresence of the topic. Corona (Covid-19) elicits various global responses from concern and panic to understanding to downplaying the seriousness to sympathy for the elderly and vulnerable. In short: these topics cause quite the stir!
The risk is not only the phenomenon itself but also the communication about it
Researchers say about climate change that the risk does not only concern the phenomenon itself, but also the communication about it. This is something that seems quite applicable to the current situation of Covid-19 as well. Listening to the experts, scientists, official health and news institutions becomes ever more important in times where rumours and false reports are being shared on a massive scale.
Not treating the crises with the needed urgency
Yet, what is also happening is that Covid-19 was not treated with the needed urgency early enough on a global scale. Nor do we, as a global community, treat the climate crisis with the needed urgency yet, although we have known about the science for quite some time now. We know that there is very strong scientific evidence for our anthropogenic contribution to climate change, of record ocean temperatures, storms intensifying, glacier mass declining, and sea levels rising...
Possible reasons for lack of climate action
So why do we not announce a global state of emergency to create climate justice worldwide, a system change that will transform our society, economy and environment for the better?
Covid-19 has developed into a crisis that is right now, right here in front of us, for everyone. Climate change is also being treated by many as a crisis, but it has some characteristics which seem to make it hard for our global community to act upon it (see e.g. Hawkins & Kanngieser (2017) and Moser (2016) for further readings):
Climate change can be abstract. Some of the causes are literally invisible or hard to imagine. For instance, what is a ton of CO2? What does that mean?
Climate change is temporarily distant. Some of the effects will only be fully felt in the future. And it is this time lag that we are struggling with to take into account in the here and now.
Climate change is spatially distant. Those responsible for causes are not necessarily those that are feeling the impacts. On the other hand, those areas that contribute little to climate change are already hit hard now or in the future. Think about small islands, the Amazon,…
We humans, particularly in urban areas, can also be separated from nature. These human-environment relations contribute to how the climate is understood or misunderstood.
Climate change is also a so-called ‘wicked problem’ - it is highly complex, even the exact problem definition at times is difficult.
All of this can contribute to psychological defenses. The famous knowledge-action gap for example, we know about the issue but behaving accordingly is a whole other matter. Or the psychological defense of businesses and governments not taking the issue seriously. Or people fearing certain loss that would come with climate action. Or people, even high-rank political actors, doubting the science. Or those that are simply annoyed by the omnipresence of the issue…
The role of communication
This is where communication about climate change has a particularly large role to play. Even the terms that we use need to be reconsidered: Is “climate change” reflecting what we are facing? Should it not also include the social dimension that goes hand in hand with the environmental dimension? “Climate justice” is already used by multiple actors, such as the World Resources Institute, and reflects the vital role played by people. Communication also plays a large role in addressing questions such as: How can hope and empowerment be promoted instead of mainly fear? How can we show the positive change that is being made to promote more positive change? How can we tackle these crises with empathy, in unity? How can we give the praise that the heroes of our society deserve, fighting for environmental and social causes? These heroes include the nurses, caregivers, doctors, cashiers, cleaners, volunteers, neighbours, shop operators, community change-makers, responsible business wo/men, activists, sustainable policy makers and so on.
A role for everyone
For these complex and global topics such as climate justice and Covid-19, ignorance, levity or downplaying can be deadly. Possibly not initially for those who are ignorant, act with levity or who downplay, but for those who are vulnerable. Vulnerable to climate crisis impacts because they are located in certain geographical locations prone to flooding, droughts, wildfires. Vulnerable because the government does not have the resources to protect against environmental crises such as temperature increase and rising sea levels, or social crises such as Covid-19. Vulnerable to a virus because they are part of the older population. Because they have existing health conditions.
Instead of ignoring these issues or taking them lightly, what is needed is empathy and action. Theses crises are, therefore, also an opportunity to stand together stronger to fight for the good, now and in the future.
(Some of the) references around climate change urgency and communication:
- Hawkins, H., & Kanngieser, A. (2017). Artful climate change communication: overcoming abstractions, insensibilities, and distances. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 8(5), e472.
- Heede, R. (2014). Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. Climatic Change, 122(1-2), 229-241.
- Kulp, S., & Strauss, B. (2019). New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding. Nature Communications, 10(1), 1-12. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z
- Moser, S. C. (2009). “Communicating Climate Change: History, Challenges, Process and Future Directions.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 1 (1): 31–53. doi: 10.1002/wcc.11.
- Moser, S. (2016). “Reflections on Climate Change Communication Research and Practice in the Second Decade of the 21st century”. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 7 (3): 345-369. doi:10.1002/wcc.403.
- Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just operating space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Discussion Papers. Oxfam GB, Oxford, United Kingdom
- Rockström, J. et al. (2009). A Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472-475.
- Steffen, W., K. Richardson, J. Rockström, S. E. Corell, I. Fetzer, E. M. Bennett, R. Biggs, S. R. Carpenter, W. de Vries, C. A. de Wit, C. Folke, D. Gerten, J. Heinke, G. M. Mace, L. M. Persson, V. Ramanathan, B. Reyers, and S. Sörlin (2015). Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347:1259855.
- Stott, P. A., Stone, D. A., & Allen, M. R. (2004). Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003. Nature, 432(7017), 610.
- Zemp, M., Huss, M., Thibert, E., Eckert, N., McNabb, R., Huber, J., ... & Thomson, L. (2019). Global glacier mass changes and their contributions to sea-level rise from 1961 to 2016. Nature, 568(7752), 382-386.
Ulrike Hahn is a PhD Candidate researching Climate Change & Visual Art. "The topics of art and sustainability have been constant companions in my life since 2014. Back then I started to work with social change artist Daniel Schinasi and to focus on my own art projects of photography, short documentaries and paintings."
"Two Master programs in art and sustainability later, it is now also the central point of my PhD project that I recently started: “Imagining Climate Change: The Visual Arts to the Rescue?” The first study will be on which art/ists receive attention in mass media on the one hand and the art world on the other.
For more information, please see Ulrike's website, part of which is dedicated to the PhD project: https://imaginehumannature.art/