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December 16, 2015 | From Activism to Artivism: Using Culture to Fight Climate Change

For so long, the climate movement was simply about carbon, parts per million, and degrees of warming. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — those data are vitally important to understanding the climate crisis. But science alone is not enough to inspire people to action. How do you make people care about climate change through facts and statistics? Increasingly, climate activists are answering: You don’t. They’re popularizing an interesting alternative, by making people care about climate change through art.

Paris would not be Paris if it weren’t for its rich artistic history. From the Louvre, to the Musee D’Orsay, to the cartoonists and painters lining the streets, art is inextricable from the city’s existence. It makes sense, then, that COP21 has led to artistic expression all around the city, with the goal of raising awareness about climate action.

The steps to the Pantheon were given a timely renovation this week, as 12 blocks of ice brought in from Greenland were arranged in the shape of a clock. Here, visitors watched the ice actively melting, a chilling representation of the melting of the polar icecaps. The total weight of the ice at the beginning of the conference was 80 tonnes, which is a miniscule fraction of the 200-300 billion tonnes of sea ice that is lost every year.

The ice melting at the Pantheon in a display
organized by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing

In the south of Paris at the Parc Montsauris, blue human statues are submerged in a pond in a curve, gradually rising out of the water and sinking back down, to represent sea level rise. All of the figures look the same, demonstrating that the effects of climate change will be and are already being felt by people of all backgrounds. The faces themselves help viewers connect with the personal and heartbreaking human rights violations that the climate crisis brings.

"Where the Tides Ebb and Flow,” by Pedro Marzorati

Le Bourget itself, where the COP21 conference is taking place, gives off a creative and inspiring feel. Hanging mobiles, sculptures, and murals decorate the “Green Zone” (the area open to the public) and invite attendees to participate in this living art by offering their thoughts, hopes, and fears to be included in the displays.

But art does not always have to be visual, and climate change art is unique neither to Paris nor to COP21. Across the globe, activists are turning to artistic and cultural expression as a way to share the human perspective of climate change and switch from the impersonal — often uninspiring — science.

“I think culture is the most important part, more important than what the talking heads have to say,” said Malik Yousef, a Grammy award-winning musician and producer, about how to get people to care about climate change.

To galvanize the power of culture, Yousef and Antonique Smith, a Grammy-nominated actress and singer, have paired up to use hip-hop music to “bring the ‘cool’ to a very hot planet,” as Yousef said at an Earth to Paris masterclass earlier in the week. The pair travel to schools in communities affected by environmental hazards to educate students about the climate crisis through hip-hop, an art form they understand and relate to.

“Music is like the soundtrack to your life,” said Smith, and using that soundtrack for education can be incredibly powerful. By writing more songs about climate change and using music as a communication tool, climate activists like Smith and Yousef are connecting climate change and culture and expanding the climate conversation beyond scientific and economic jargon. They said they hope their work inspires young people to learn about climate change, take action against it, and make informed political decisions.

Smith performs “Mercy, Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye
at the Earth to Paris masterclass. (click to watch)

Art is therefore becoming a vital way to educate people about climate change and inspire them to action. But it also serves as a way for frontline communities to process environmental destruction. Eunice Andrada, an 18-year-old poet and climate activist from the Philippines, considers writing poetry an important part of her experience with climate change.

“Poetry, in terms of resilience, has always been a term of healing, of coping,” said Andrada. “It’s always been valuable to me personally to be able to flush out these huge conversations and to be able to condense them into language that’s relatable to me and to my communities.”

Andrada was one of a handful of young poets who attended COP21 to perform her work and share her story. She sees her poetry as a way “to ground [climate] conversations in the human perspective” and tell the stories of her community not through figures like inches of sea level rise, but through personal narrative.

“It’s important for poets, for writers, for artists, to use their art to be able to cut through all that dense language that not everyone can relate to, and to be able to use their art to inspire action,” said Andrada.

The climate movement is ultimately not about carbon, but about people. If people don’t feel personally connected to climate change, there’s only so much that the economics and science can do to inspire them to action. But art influences many of us in a way in which science, economics, and policy cannot. It speaks to us in a personal and sometimes spiritual way, evoking emotions and affecting how we view the world around us. Art reflects our culture, and our desires, dreams, and sufferings as a species, and has the potential to bring us together in times of strife. In the current climate crisis, there’s nothing we need more than to be brought together, and perhaps art is the best way to get us there.


Christina Cilento is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Christina is a junior at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, where she studies Learning and Organizational Change with an emphasis in environmental policy and sustainability.

Emma Hutchinson is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Emma is a junior at Stanford University, where she is studying environmental science and economics.