Climate Change: Popular culture

Climate change goes pop

Can popular culture help communicate climate change?

Unsustainable Escalation is one of the many works by Del Riego that expresses her concerns over the effects of climate change. Photo credit: Yolanda Del Riego
By Vijay Shankar Balakrishnan

At the 2017 European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ), a panel of communicators, journalists and artists who portray climate change in their artwork will discuss the role of popular culture in communicating this hot topic.

One such panelist is Madrid-based, Spanish-American artist Yolanda del Riego. She will exhibit her recent Triangulation Series at the ECSJ2017, as part of Triangulation Through Science Communication, a trilateral project that uses art, science and communication to evoke emotions and inform the audience about climate change.

So how does her audience receive her works?

Del Riego has conducted several exhibitions of her environmental artwork over the last 40 years, interacting with her audiences. She believes people are attracted to her works due to the visual cues she places in them. “For me, colours, slopes and triangles represent the impact of the crisis, and the abstract nature of my work represents how complex and disturbing climate change is,” she explains.

Olafur Eliasson, a Danish-Icelandic artist who will give a keynote speech on 27 June 2017 as part of ECSJ2017, takes a different approach to the subject. His installation, Ice Watch, is a huge watch made of icebergs, emphasising the urgency with which we must consider climate change.

Climate change has taken centre stage in other forms of contemporary popular culture. Novelists Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh have depicted climate change as the main event in their books The Year of the Flood and The Great Derangement, respectively. The subject also forms the core of Dweepa (The Island), a theatre play that blends science and Indian mythology to sanctify the environment.

There is a growing consumer market for popular culture portraying climate change. Whether or not such works inspire changes in audience attitude or behaviour is a matter of ongoing research.

Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychology researcher based in Cardiff, UK, believes artworks portraying climate change can stimulate strong emotional reactions, making the subject more personally relevant to audiences. “Building that personal connection is critical because climate change is an issue which is psychologically ‘distant’ in space, time and certainty for most people, especially in developed countries,” she says.

Portraying climate change and its consequences visually is a powerful way to provoke audience emotions. But does such art really influence the public’s daily life? In a collaborative work with an environmental artist, Whitmarsh evaluated responses from a group of people who had observed an artwork on the local impact of climate change. Just over half of the participants felt the installation was informative, but their responses were vague. “Most of the things they reported learning were quite general and not really linked to personal behaviour or lifestyle,” says Whitmarsh.

For Whitmarsh, the motivational impact of climate change art on an audience depends greatly on the focus of the work. If the creator uses a positive frame, for example, inspiring change or providing good examples of attractive action, the work demonstrates what people can do to address the situation. “This can perhaps engage people and inspire action,” she suggests, “But if there is a negative emotional frame, it might serve to disengage people.”