Diane Burko at glacier crevice
Diane Burko on Svalbard’s Kronebreen Glacier, during her first-ever trip to a glacier, in September 2013. (Photo credit: Diane Burko Photography)

When Philadelphia-based artist Diane Burko decided to paint glaciers, she couldn’t have predicted she’d in time be perched at age 68 atop a polar iceberg, decked out in her first pair of crampons and sharing the grayscale view with a glaciologist and a helicopter engineer.

The on-and-off helicopter ride from the northern-most research station in the world took place in 2013, but Burko’s journey had really begun in a gallery in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 2006. That’s when a history-minded curator asked if she could contribute some early work to complement an exhibit of her current work. With her agreement to do so, a massive 70-by-110-inch acrylic rendering of a snowy alpine mountain Burko had painted in 1976 soon wound up with its own gallery wall.

But unlike most run-of-the-mill trawls through an archive, revisiting this particular decades-old piece, at this particular time, was no less than “life-changing” for the artist.

“I remember I was walking through the exhibit, answering questions, talking with people, but inside I’m thinking, oh my god, I painted this 30 years ago,” she says. “I’m older, my life has changed, and then I thought of the snow, and wondered if that French Alpine snow was still there.”

Why was she thinking about the fate of that snow three decades after first painting it?

Because a great cultural shift was unfolding over that same time. The year 2006 was when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Fieldnotes on a Catastrophe attracted broad popular attention, arousing Burko’s climate consciousness and also that of millions of others.

“Climate change was in the public air,” she says.

And indeed, that year does seem a watershed moment in the history of climate art. Just the year before, in 2005, 350.org founder Bill McKibben had pleaded in Grist for the arts community to end what seemed to many to be its silence on climate change. But the floodgates opened soon thereafter, and McKibben later acknowledged 2006 had been the last possible moment he could have written such words.

By the very next year, signs of a collective artistic “Yes, we will!” were cropping up all over the map. Perhaps most visibly there were the 120 giant “Cool Globes” that took center stage along Chicago’s downtown lakefront – colorful orbs that would eventually go on to 18 other exhibition cities.

Since then, the artistic movement to confront climate change has steadily gained momentum.

The changing state of climate art

Climate-related art now abounds in galleries, on streets, in community centers – you name it, from sobering landscape photography, in-your-face murals, quirky graphic design, and earnest comics, to character-driven theater, classical music, and rousing dance. Don’t be surprised to see quality climate-oriented art work in popular museums and airports and subway stations.

Pair of hands reaching out to building in Venice
Visitors to Venice find a giant pair of hands reaching out of the sea, representing rising sea level concerns. (Photo credit: “Support,” by Lorenzo Quinn, Halcyon Gallery)

Interestingly, if not surprisingly, much of the art is fueled by science. Burko, for instance, often works right alongside scientists, traveling with them to remote locales, and studying their data and satellite imagery to directly inform her art.

“I believe that in order to persuade or educate, art has to be grounded in science and fact. I want to visually introduce those facts,” she says, “because as they say, pictures can speak louder than words.”

The desire to create a bridge between art and climate science can be found in many places, from the Extreme Ice Survey’s exquisite “Ice Diamonds” photographs, to Jill Pelto’s data-driven watercolors. Don’t forget too the United States Geological Survey’s eye-popping collection of aerial photography, so artfully rendered that it could double as a coffee table book. There are countless other examples too.

Art helps us see what can be difficult to see

There’s good reason, of course, that McKibben made that plea. Art can serve as a powerful tool in raising awareness about climate change. Greenpeace and 350.org, for example, are just two of the many nonprofit organizations that regularly champion artistic expression, with a cause.

The Peoples’ Climate Marches in 2014 and 2017 are also examples of how evocative imagery and messaging can help mobilize people, potentially attracting new interest and awareness among casual passers-by.

People's Climate March photo
A view of the People’s Climate March in Chicago, April 2017. (Photo credit: Our Power Campaign/Christine Irvine)

“Communities came together for weeks beforehand to build the floats and murals that got their messages across in visceral ways,” says McKibben via email. “Most people, of course, are just onlookers, and any movement needs to appeal not just to their heads but their hearts.”

Leveraging art to capture diverse people’s imaginations, and in turn move them to act, long has proven to be a winning tactic among  environmental nonprofit organizations. Just look at the impact Ansel Adams’ photography had on protecting California’s King Canyon, or art focusing on Alaska’s wildlife or the West’s free-roaming wild horses – art that helped fire-up the collective imagination.

What makes art so effective in reaching people? Consider the science. Visual scientist and ecopsychology pioneer Laura Sewall of Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, says humans are wired to form connections through sensory perception, which includes of course, sight.

“Some signs of climate change are invisible or hard for people to see,” she says, “so climate art is an important way to make visible what’s happening. And for some people, seeing a provocative image is going to motivate or provoke them far more than would reading a chapter.”

Art also has the potential to open minds. In an article called “Beauty and the Brain,” Sewall writes that neural plasticity – which in this case would mean the flexibility of opening one’s mind to climate reality as new information comes in – can be activated when something important or surprising activates the visual-processing parts of our brains. This could mean that even people not interested in learning about climate change could be inspired to think again.

And what’s one way to inspire such a turnaround? Place a powerful message where people don’t expect to see it.

Images of Cool Globes exhibits in chicago, D.C., and San Francisco
The colorful public art exhibit, Cool Globes, has appeared in cities across the U.S. and Europe.  (Photo credit: CoolGlobes.org)

Wendy Abrams, the founder of Cool Globes, the massive public art display mentioned earlier, found herself thinking exactly that. It was 2005 and she’d just read two climate-related stories in one day’s newspaper – one about how the U.S. was pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol; the other about the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.

The juxtaposition of action and inaction suddenly enraged her, filling her with anger that people hadn’t been paying enough attention to climate change – herself included. So Abrams and some friends started talking about how to get more people to confront the issue.

“We wanted to meet people where they were at,” she says, “so we said, okay, let’s go to the street, put something on the sidewalk where people will literally bump into it and be forced to confront what’s right in front of them – because climate change is right here in front of us and we do need to confront it.”

The power of art as teacher and provocateur

Reaching new audiences has become an important element of the work for climate artists like Burko, who now weaves outreach into much of her work. She says people often go to exhibits like hers to look at things they think are beautiful; many are not even remotely thinking about climate change. She tries to engage respectfully with as many visitors as she can – especially any rejecting the mainstream science on climate change.

Diane Burko in gallery exhibit
Diane Burko discusses her work with patrons at an exhibit featuring artists addressing climate change. (Photo credit: The Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, PA)

“There have been psychological studies that show that people respond emotionally to art,” she says. “So if someone is responding emotionally, and is engaged visually by the art on the wall, then they might be more likely to listen if the artist is walking through the exhibit saying ‘the reason I did this is that I went there, and saw this fascinating glacier, and let me tell you more.’ It’s my way to help educate.”

John Barrett, former executive director of the Brushwood Center, a nonprofit that offers nature-based arts programming in Lake County, Illinois, agrees and says he has seen first-hand how art can open minds about these issues.

“Everyone knows water is scarce in Arizona,” he says. “But often when you live in cities in the West, you can’t really tell from everyday life – the swimming pools are still full, and the grass is still green.”

Recalling a collection of water-related photos, he says art can help get people to start caring about the issues.

“Talking about scientific research on climate change can be abstract,” Barrett says. “But if you capture what it means in a photo of something like a massive flood or drought or dried-up sea somewhere, you can more easily engage people, just by having them look at it for a moment.”

Chantal Bilodeau, a playwright and founder of Artists and Climate Change, which showcases climate art of any form, also believes art can break through barriers. She says some of the blog’s followers are neither artists, nor passionate about climate change. They’re simply people who like art.

“If they can get exposed to this art because they like looking at nice pictures,” she says, “and get more information about climate change at the same time, then I think that’s great.”

The point, she says, is that people won’t change their minds, or their behavior, without reason to do so. They need to be inspired to develop a conviction about climate change that fits in with their worldview.

“And that’s where art can become really important,” she says. “When it’s well done, art can offer a non-threatening place where people can reflect on these deeper issues.”

With such aims in mind, Bilodeau helped organize the Climate Change Theater Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays that coincides with the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP meetings). In 2015, the effort involved more than 100 events scheduled in 25 countries.

Climate Change Theatre exhibit photo
“A Swan Song: Voices on Climate Change,” produced by The Box Collective in Brooklyn, NY as part of Climate Change Theatre Action 2015. (Photo credit: Julia Deffet)

The readings attracted an eclectic group of people, including some not politically inclined to talk about climate. Speaking of an event that took place at the foot of a glacier in Alaska, Bilodeau says that some disinclined audience members were encouraged by the humor and artistry of the show to stay afterward for a presentation by a local glaciologist. The willingness to listen to a scientist can be an important first step for some.

She acknowledges too that, considering the Alaska location of this particular reading, passing out blankets and free hot cocoa  may also have played a part in retaining the audience.

Art as a means of ‘rallying the base’

Art can open minds – but it can also fortify those that are already “there,” from providing space for heavy thoughts, to the simple but invaluable reminder that no one is alone in the effort to tackle climate change. In fact, recent polls show that most Americans want “aggressive” action on climate.

But acting on climate change for some can be overwhelming, considering threats of rising seas, worsening drought, biodiversity loss … the list goes on.

Abrams shares a story of a college student so distraught about climate change that he said he wanted to just go away and live in the mountains. Stories like his are exactly why she says we need to do more than focus on education: “We also need to empower the people who already get it.”

Art can help do exactly that, by giving people already grappling with tough feelings an opportunity to work through them. Sewall, the visual psychologist from Bates, says art can help people who have been “in the trenches” of climate work confront what’s painful about the issue, share some of that sadness, then go back into the world feeling stronger.

“Art can serve as a salve,” she says, “and can give people a feeling of ‘we’re not alone in our efforts.’”

Desire for this sense of community was exactly what inspired Bilodeau to create an online space for artists of any media to convene over climate.

“I was lonely!” she says. “I couldn’t find people around me doing that work and I thought, there’s got to be someone else, so I created the blog. I figured if I felt alone, then other people must also be, too, and it grew from there.” She gets a charge from seeing other people’s work, and that helps her keep going forward.

“I think it’s more important now than ever to get together,” she says, “and to encourage each other, and to find other ways to take action.”

Recognizing the opportunity

Climate art comes in all shapes and sizes: Some is dark and more difficult to swallow, some is light and aims for belly laughs. But there’s one thing most of it seems to have in common.

“Art is one tool the other side just doesn’t have,” says McKibben, the climate activist and author.

Think about it. How much art have you encountered that’s a passionate plea for a do-nothing approach to climate change?

“I’ve never seen a play or piece of work about climate that is pro-climate denial,” says Bilodeau. “God, who knows, maybe they do exist somewhere, but my sense is – we do have the artists.”

Art may take more time and is less direct than one-on-one activism, she says, but the beauty is that it also plants seeds that are longer lasting than signing a petition.

Efforts to quash climate policy and education do have funding. But they seem to lack the passion that artists like Bilodeau and others referenced here have for creating their mission-driven art.

Burko, for her part, is so inspired that she’s about to embark on a whole new chapter in her climate art adventure. The 72-year-old is preparing to chronicle an entirely different signal of climate change: at-risk coral reefs. Her new effort clearly will not be without its challenges.

“The irony of ironies is that I don’t even swim, so it’s kind of crazy,” she says. “But then again I’d never worked on a glacier either, so you never know.”

Inspiration feeds artists to test their own limits. And in turn it can energize their audiences to do the same. As the art world’s focus on climate continues to grow, so too may the public’s collective capacity for understanding and action.

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Daisy Simmons

Daisy Simmons is a freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in research-driven storytelling. In addition to contributing to Yale Climate Connections since early 2016, she also...