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Singing sea levels: finding creative solutions to communicate the climate crisis

Singing sea levels: finding creative solutions to communicate the climate crisis

By Arielle Domb
15th Jan 2020

The nightmare prophesied by scientists can no longer be regarded as a sci-fi myth, romantically encapsulated in images of starving polar bears and melting ice. An apocalyptic nightmare played out over the news this year – bushfires blazing across Australia, tropical storms hitting Thailand and Mexico, deadly floods swamping central and eastern Africa. With each tragedy, we are reminded of the fact from which we cannot hide: the climate crisis is a human catastrophe, human lives are being taken before our eyes, and it is those on the margins who are suffering most.

One of the major challenges now is communicating what we know from science into a language that people understand and are actually moved by. Researcher, Judy Twedt describes this as a “translation problem”: 

“As scientists we interpret information that streams into our labs from instruments all over the earth and we integrate that information with the help of supercomputers to learn about Earth’s past and present and future.” 

The problem then, she says, is where we go from here? 

“How do we make meaning from numbers? How do we help others process what the numbers are telling us without causing information overload on the one hand and emotional shutdown on the other?”

To rise up to the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, we need to re-evaluate our methods of communication. In ‘Communicating Ecology Through Art: What Scientists Think’, David J. Curtis, Nick Reid and Guy Ballard point to the value of art in affecting human behaviour.

“Throughout history artists have produced artworks that have attempted to jolt their communities out of complacency, articulate concerns about social justice […], and provide enduring images that continue to inspire people down through the ages.”

In response to what she describes as an “information overload” of visual data, Twedt has sought out innovative means of communicating environmental change. She has translated graph data into musical melodies, creating soundtracks conveying melting arctic sea ice, rise of carbon pollution and earth temperature increase. 

“Neuroscience tells us that rhythm activates many different parts of the brain which is important if we’re looking for new ways to connect to the information,” she explains. 

“Music is really visceral,” said Stephan Crawford, founder of The ClimateMusic Project, a San Francisco-based group that creates music to communicate the urgency of climate change. “Listening to a composition is an active experience, not just a passive one. It can make climate change feel more personal and inspire people to take action.”

Throughout 2019, pop stars have been incorporating themes of environmental disaster into their music. In her song, “all the good girls go to hell”, 18-year old pop singer, Billie Eilish frames the more common pop themes of parties and unrequited love against an apocalyptic backdrop of arid land and rising water. In her chart-topping album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana del Ray blends the metaphorical fiery nights of a heated summer romance with the very real flames of environmental disaster.

The ClimateMusic Project, a San Francisco-based group, creates music based on climate data.

 “Climate change is something I’m only ever confronted with in a sad/ guilty way….”, says pop-singer Grimes, whose album Miss_Anthropocene, is set to be released in February 2020, personifying herself as a “goddess of climate change”, “maybe it’ll be a bit easier to look at if it can exist as a character and not just abstract doom. 

Highlighting the beauty of nature rather than the ugliness of environmental disaster is central to Arcadia Earth, an NYC multi-sensorial art installation founded by Valentino Vettori, taking visitors through underwater worlds and fantasy lands. 

“Climate change is always told in a very negative way,” Vettori explains, “I don’t think negativity is powerful.”

Artist, Cindy Pease Roe, transforms plastic ocean debris into a room of electric jellyfish, dangling majestically in blue light. In another room, Basia Goszczynska creates a saturated palace of coral-like textures, constructed from 44,000 salvaged plastic bags (the amount used in New York State every single minute).

“Math is such an abstract thing,” Goszczynska explains. “It’s hard to have an emotional impact with a statistic. We’re bringing that data to a wider public through art.”

Fighting the climate crisis requires imagination. It calls for us to de-centre ourselves, to act in favour of individuals we have never met, to think beyond our own lifetimes, to individuals who have not yet been born into the world. A catastrophe that requires urgent action for the ethereal ‘future’ – the arts, with their ability to reorient perspectives, generate empathy and hope – have never been so important. 

“It’s hard to have an emotional impact with a statistic. We’re bringing that data to a wider public through art.”