Climate Change Art to the Rescue?

Climate Change Art to the Rescue?
Photo by Uli Hahn

Greta Thunberg’s school strikes and speeches for climate justice put the topic of climate change into everyone’s newsfeeds for several months now. Almost every day we read, hear and see about climate change causes and impacts – and hope that much-needed change will be implemented in time.

In light of the recent upsurge of the topic of climate change in the societal realm, it seems ever more important to explore: What is the role of contemporary art in addressing this omnipresent topic? What is the potential, what are the pitfalls?

Climate change art: Not so new but increasingly popular

The topic of climate change has caught artists’ attention at least for several decades. Along with the climate change discourse entering the public sphere, the media coverage on artists addressing climate change is constantly increasing. While almost no news reports were containing the terms “artists” and “climate change” in the 1990s, there have been significant developments in the past years.

Artists addressing climate change are not bound by following a certain kind of expected language or style, as scientists and journalists might be. Art lives from challenging existing conventions. This ability is exactly what allows it to add content and form that might be missing in the mainstream climate change discourse. In this regard, the Imagination is art´s best friend. Artists’ imaginative framings and narratives of climate change range from past, present to future-oriented works that can be hopeful, concerned or catastrophic, investigative, scientific, satirist, you name it…

Any imaginable art genre is addressing climate change-related themes. From paintings, photos, films to three-dimensional objects in mixed-media installations to participatory art interventions in public spaces... anything is possible. Particularly visual art can represent an abstract topic such as climate change and render it a personal experience, a topic that otherwise might seem temporally and spatially distant. I personally find fascinating Banksy’s street art on the topic, photographs such as by Camille Seaman or immersive installations such as Studio Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht or Michael Pinsky´s Pollution Pods.  

Climate change art has entered cultural institutions. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, for instance, held an exhibition titled “Change the System” in 2018.  And Het Klimaatmuseum currently tries to grow from being an organiser of pop-up exhibitions into a permanent museum. If you want to see some climate change art, this will be the place to go!

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The goals of climate change artists

Nowadays, it seems that we all know about climate change. We are aware of the causes and impacts, but governments still do not sufficiently adhere to promised sustainability measures, companies continue polluting and we still book more flights than ever before.

Knowledge is certainly not enough. Inspiration, creativity and novelty could be game-changing additions to the climate change discourse… and the arts certainly have plenty of that!

Climate change artists, curators and scholars alike frequently cite art’s power for emotional engagement: to feel melancholy, nostalgia, awe, respect, enchantment, sympathy, but also terror and unsettlement. There is something called the ‘Melancholic Sublime’, a combination of beauty and fragility and destruction. Take pianist Ludovico Einaudi’s ‘Elegy for the Arctic’.

Emotional engagement alone is not the only goal that artists go for. They can take a palpable activist stance, for instance in global art projects such as 350 Earth, or the recently formed initiative Artists for Future, which wants to “increase the pressure created by the pupils [of Friday for Future] and to persuade the decision-makers to act”. Such artists intend to drive behavioural change.

But … can art achieve ‘real’ change?

If art can achieve ‘real’ change – as in shifting behaviours – is a highly debated question.  For one, what artists and curators want to achieve and what the audience ultimately perceives might be different. Some artists claim to achieve action while the viewer might find him or herself merely in a short-term state of alert. And of course, with art, as with many other things, one person might be impacted while another remains unaffected.

However, another question could also be: Should artists be judged by their ability to achieve change in terms of behavioural engagement of politicians, entrepreneurs and the general public? What about art´s contributions to reflection, sensibility, contemplation, the aesthetic experience, even if they are short-term?

Climate change is also not a topic solved single-handedly. It needs global, interdisciplinary collaborations. Art-science projects, such as Cape Farewell, acknowledge that climate change is an economic, social and cultural issue in need of combining art and scientific research.

But there is also the concern of climate change art, as much as the natural sciences, falling into the trap of reductionist thinking – only showing the same potential future scenarios again and again. Art that solely focuses on dramatic, or even apocalyptic narratives, can lead to depression and catharsis, to distancing from the topic, or to feelings of helplessness. It is therefore especially interesting to explore artworks with a broader array of scenarios. For example, solution, inspiration-focused narratives.

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And what about the artist’s footprint?

People who talk about climate change are frequently confronted with their own way of doing things. Greta Thunberg, for instance, has received a lot of unrealistic expectations although she is actually engaging in a lot of sustainable lifestyle practices herself.

Many artists, it seems, have not yet adopted sustainable practices. Sadly, the prices for sustainable options are often still higher than unsustainable options. I recently switched to sustainable paints, but the change is certainly not without sacrifice. If I buy conventional paints it costs me as much as a few euros; if I go for sustainable paints it can go up to 60, 70 Euros for the same quantity. This exemplifies that the much-needed systems change also applies to the business world of arts materials.

Artists are also judged – and quite likely will be more and more – by the processes they use for showing their artwork. A well-known example of this is artist Olafur Eliasson’s installation Ice Watch that required an immense effort to transport blocks of ice to Europe. This raises the need for artists to reconsider their materials and check if the making or showing of their artwork is not contributing itself to the problem (or how it can be kept to a minimum). Another interesting area for investigation!

Climate change art to the rescue… with obstacles and in collaboration!

There are several challenges for anyone getting engaged in the climate change discourse, and artists are certainly not excluded from that.

The trap of reductionist thinking, the potential discrepancy between goals and actual impact, the underdeveloped sustainable (art) industry, the artist´s and artwork´s footprint, the risk of being rejected by the art world for making didactic art… the list is long.

Yet, art has some unique features that make it a very promising way of engaging with climate change. Its power for imagination, its potential to show a limitless array of scenarios and solutions, its aptitude for the sublime, its ability of creative representation, providing inspiration, personal experiences, emotional engagement. Most importantly, climate action and other sustainable development goals will only be reached in collaboration of the social, environmental, political, economic and cultural sphere. Stay tuned!

Portrait picture of Ulrike Hahn


Ulrike Hanh 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 artists as public intellectuals in the climate change discourse: authority, arguments and aims."

For more information, please see Ulrike's website, dedicated to the PhD project:

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