The battle is getting desperate, the odds long, so it’s time to pull out a big tool in the fight against global warming: art.
Science has done its job with climate change. For two decades now our climatologists have insisted that the buildup of carbon dioxide and predicted it would bring fire and flood—and that’s what we’ve seen these past months, in Russia, in Pakistan, and in a thousand other places. Nineteen nations set new all-time temperature marks this summer; beneath the seas coral reefs bleached at record pace.
But data can touch only the head, and so far that’s not been enough. Self-interest and inertia have been stronger than scientific warnings; so far neither the U.S. Congress nor the United Nations have done much, and next month’s conference in Cancun promises more disappointment.
In the days leading up to that conference, though, the world will see a new kind of spectacle, the first planet-scale group show. Art so big you need back all the way up to outer space for a proper view! In more than a dozen places around the globe, well-known artists have sketched simple designs that will be executed on snowfields, desert sands, city parks, or the waters of tropical lagoons. The medium: human bodies, thousands of them in each place. DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based aerial imagery firm, is donating time on its satellites, which will be looking down from 400 miles above the equator.
Over the weekend, we began to receive photographs from the events and they are remarkable:
The face of a young girl threatened by climate change in Delta de Ebro, Spain:
A "Flash Flood" in Santa Fe where over a thousand people filled a dry riverbed to form a human "flash flood" depicting where the Santa Fe River should be flowing:
A "Cool Roof" mural to reflect sunlight and cut carbon in New York City:
A "solar eagle" taking flight towards climate solutions in Los Angeles:
A house threatened by rising water in the hurricane-haunted Dominican Republic, here from 380 miles above the planet:
And here on the ground:
Just hours ago this human hurricane spun in from Mexico City:
And more are coming soon: in South Africa and Egypt they’ll incorporate solar panels into the designs; in Iceland and India images of polar bears and elephants, both threatened as the temperature rises.
You might ask: so what? Don’t we really need new engines and turbines? And the answer is: of course. But we won’t get them, not in numbers sufficient to make a difference, until we’ve really woken up to the danger at hand.
Waking people up is one of the tasks at which artists excel. And in this case, the medium really is the message. By using, for the first time, the whole earth as a canvas, they’ll be reminding all of us the one root truth of the global warming era: we really do live on a planet. A planet, just like Mars or Saturn, where the gaseous composition of the atmosphere determines whether life is possible. And just one planet—not the separate nations and classes we think we inhabit, but a round piece of rock with one atmosphere where the carbon we pour skyward mixes invisibly to set the temperature.
Many of these designs will have the number 350 in one corner—a reminder of the collaboration needed between the arts and sciences. That’s the number a NASA-led team three years ago identified as the most important on earth. Beyond it, they said, we couldn’t count on a planet "similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted." We’re already past that level—the atmosphere is 390 ppm which is why Russia catches on fire and Pakistan drowns. Which is why we’re busy making art.
We won’t solve this crisis with images. But maybe we can help build the pressure for politicians and businesspeople to act. There’s a movement building the world around, and it can’t appeal to the head alone.
As part of the launch for 350 EARTH, the first global art show for the climate, this oped was signed by 350.org founder Bill McKibben; multimedia hip-hop innovator DJ Spooky; renowned urban artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada; and director of the Santa Fe Art Institute, Diane Karp.