Art Makes Environmental Change Real

By Bill Chameides

Convincing Americans that climate change is a real and present danger has proven to be a daunting and often frustrating challenge for scientists. Despite thegrowing evidence of climate change, and humanity as the driver of that change, there remains a hardcore20 percent or so that reject the whole notionof it and a healthy percentage that remainunconvinced that humans are causing it. And on top of those dismal statistics, more than half of Americansbelievethat climate change does not represent a threat to them.

Scientific Data vs. Vividness and Accessibility

Apparently, scientific information, no matter how solid, is unable to persuade a good many people of the reality of climate change. At the same time we’re finding that less objective (and less scientifically valid) types of information can affect people’s views. One example is the so-called local warming effect where people’s experience of unusually warm or cold swings in their local temperature influencestheir beliefs about global temperature trends — despite scientists telling them thatlocal temperaturesarenot a metric for global temperatures.

Writing on this subject in last week’sNature Climate Change, author Lisa Zaval of Columbia University and co-authorsconclude that, with regard to beliefs about global warming,

“personal experience with the daily weather tends to dominate more diagnostic but paler statistical information provided by experts … because the former is more vivid and accessible. … Specifically, respondents who perceived today’s temperature as being warmer than usual exhibited greater belief in and heightened concern for global warming and also donated more money to a climate change charity.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that local phenomena would have a larger impact on our core beliefs than information about global temperature trends. We’re a species evolved from hunter-gatherers who, to survive on the savanna, were necessarily attuned to local conditions and personal experiences. Some, it would appear, need more than scientific lectures to overcome such “hardwiring.” (E.O. Wilson’s“Social Conquest of Earth”provides a fascinating treatise on this aspect of our heritage.)

This apparent irrationality, this hardwiring barrier if you will, might cause some to despair of ever making progress on an intellectually complicated issue like climate change. But despair accomplishes nothing. We just need to find a way to penetrate through the hardwiring, to find something that, in the words of Zaval et al., is “vivid and accessible.”

Enter the Performance Artist

I wonder if performance artists hold one of the keys. Performance art is defined in a variety of ways. (Seehere. See alsothis clipfrom “Sex and the City”; HT@TheAtlantic.) I use the term here to describe art whose essence is the experience of it as opposed to the piece itself.

For example, consider the artistEve Mosherandher HighWaterLine project, whose tag line is “visualizing climate change.” Thegenesis for the projectgrew out of a desire to communicate the threat of climate change — a global problem she felt could be more easily understood if localized. After reading theMetropolitan East Coast Assessment, she felt that the risks to New York posed by sea level rise could be presented in a new way. The standard approach is to create maps showing what land will be underwater if sea level rises by a certain amount as in this New York City one. But while it portrays a pretty grim future for residents and fans of the Big Apple, it’s hard to project yourself into a two-dimensional image.

So Mosher took a different approach. She traversed the city pushing a line marker filled with blue chalk. And, much like a grounds crew member at Yankee Stadium demarcating the foul lines before a game, Mosher drew a line across the city marking the 10-foot contour above sea level, an elevation that corresponds closely with the reach of a100-year flood.Today a flood reaching that line has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year, but by mid-century that percentagecould increase five-fold. (See NYTslide show.)

It’s one thing to look at a map and see where flooding may occur, it’s another to realize that the spot where you’re standing (especially if you’repretty far inland) will be underwater some day, thanks in part to climate change. That’s the power of performance art; or at least that’s what Mosher, who has now expanded her project to other cities, hopes.

A Long Line of Artists

Mosher is by no means the only artist who is trying to reach people about the environment through experience and performance. In fact, there’s a pretty rich history of this kind of art.

In September 1969 three California-based artists, Joe Hawley,Mel Henderson, and Alfred Young, took to the San Francisco Bay near an oil refinery and spelled the word “oil” with non-toxic dye, awakening people to the potential environmental hazards of transporting the fuel. That November they staged atraffic jam of “Yellow Cabs”in the Castro section of San Francisco.

In the 1970sHelen Mayer and Newton Harrison, a husband-and-wife duo who are sometimes called the “Grandparents of Ecological Art” [pdf], blazed an environmentally focused artistic path with theirThe Lagoon Cycle, a project [pdf] that “interpreted the large-scale ecosystem of the Pacific Rim, in particular interactions among food production and watersheds.”

The 1990s sawLorna Jordan‘sWaterworks Gardens, “an environmental art/public works project that invites people to observe the natural processes of water purification while connecting them to the cycles and mysteries of water.” It’s an amazing concept — in addition to being a work of art, it is awastewater treatment plantthat “treats stormwater, enhances a wetland, provides garden rooms and creates eight acres of new open space for public use.”

In 2008 Greg Niemeyer, an artist-cum-computer programmer, wanted to bring people’s attention to the problem of pollution in an“experiential”way. The result wasBlack Cloud, an interactive game that collects air quality data (such as carbon dioxide levels, temperature, volatile organic compounds) and transmits it to “a website where players of the game can see a graph of the air quality conditions at specific places over time.” Named after the soot clouds that visit Cairo every October, the game keeps hidden the exact location of the pollution points, engaging the players to try to determine what might cause a given kind of pollution.

And in 2010 Maya Lin‘s seven story circlesinstallationbecame part of theConfluence ProjectatSacajawea State Park, a memorialthat uses geology, local history, native flora and fauna to weave seven storiesthat tell the history of an area that’s been“a gathering place for Native people for more than 10,000 years.”

And On the Climate Front …

Climate change has also been a muse for artists.

In composing“A Song of Our Warming Planet,”cellist David Crawford translated global climate data from 1880 to 2012 into music, assigning each year a pitch representing the surface temperature for that year.

As documented in the film“Chasing Ice,”photographerJames Balogcaptures the rapid and alarming pace ofclimate change in the Arcticthrough his series of time-lapse images showing ice and its disappearance.

Frances Whitehead, a professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, aims to confront visitors with a changing climate throughout the year through an installation she is designing forThe 606, thenew park in Chicago that’s being built on old railway tracks. This“climate-monitoring installation”will connect two trailheads witha line of 453 native apple serviceberry trees whose sensitivityto temperature will help“visualize Chicago’s famous lake effect with a five-day bloom-spread. ”

It’s quite a list and one that could go on, but maybe it’d be better to take a break and go seek this stuff out. That’s the whole point of the art, after all. To see and experience it. It could just be, andthere’s some science to support this, that the novelty of these artistic approaches will wake people up to the problem — and spur action. Before, you know, that high water line is breached.

Top photo: Eve Mosher looks across to the water as she draws the line through the West side of Manhattan. ©Hose Cedeno


Bill ChameidesBill Chameides is the dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. His research focuses on elucidating the causes of and remedies for global, regional and urban environmental change and identifying more sustainable pathways forward. He has authored or co-authored 140 peer-reviewed papers and eight books. He also blogs at,, The Huffington Post, the University of Minnesota’s digital magazine Ensia,, and National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge blog. Visit Bill’s blog TheGreenGrok and keep up with him on Twitter @TheGreenGrok.