digital seit 2020
digital seit 2020

What art has to say about climate change

Klima-Demo, Berlin / Photo: Simon Hertling

No significant movement in art appears independent of the current social and historical situation, writes Edward Lucie-Smith in the introduction to John K.Grande’s book “Art Nature Dialogues”.

At the beginning of the 21st century, politicians and scientists turned their attention to the problem of climate change. In 2018, the IPCC published a special report on 1.5 ° C global warming. According to the report, limiting warming to 1.5 ° C is technically possible within the laws of physics. However, this assumes that global carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and to zero by 2050. At the current rate of emissions, the world will reach 1.5 ° C warming between 2030 and 2052, and by 2100 global warming could be more than 3-4 ° C.

“The report by the world’s leading climatologists is a deafening alarm to the world. It confirmed that the climate is changing faster than we are and we have little time,” said UN Secretary-General Antoniu Guterres.

The aim of the following essay is to research the way of communicating the problem of climate change through art. This research is based on the hypothesis that art provides people with visualisations of the problem and gives them a personal experience of the issue.

It is particularly important for climate change, as many people still consider it an issue that does not pose a direct impact on their lives. How can art communicate and make visible a climate change problem?

Cultural institutions

In the coming years, scientists will need to collect a large amount of data to increase our understanding of climate change and develop concepts to improve the global environment. Socially active organisations are striving to visualise the data collected by scientists and put it into practice.

Cultural institutions that influence public opinion should be held responsible for modern society’s low sensitivity to issues that should be at the forefront of its concerns. However, their relevance is too often misjudged by said institutions.

Klima-Demo, Berlin / Photo: Simon Hertling

According to a study published in the journal Climatic Change in 2013, 83 companies that use fossil fuels are responsible for almost two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions.

At the beginning of the 21st century, large energy providers such as Shell and BP began to fund art as a reaction to the image of these fossil fuels, which was becoming negative.

The “Fossil Free Culture Foundation” believes that fossil fuel companies fund cultural institutions to improve their image. This marketing strategy is called “art washing”, a term coined after “Artwash. Big oil and the Arts” by Mel Evans.

Over the last few decades, art institutes dealing with other noteworthy issues have bypassed the issue of our dependence on fossil fuels and their impact on the state of the planet. This is in fact a strategic exclusion of the subject from the art debate, leading to ignorance and compromising the education of our generation in this area.


One mechanism for visualising and perceiving a changing world is through art. Artists around the world are coming together to explore different modes of change in order to better see and understand the current and true picture of the world today.

Klima-Demo, Berlin / Photo: Simon Hertling

Art that aims to raise awareness of environmental issues is called environmental art. In order to name the art form accurately, it is important that the term itself is broad and includes many different movements and practices. Land Art, Earth Art, Sustainable Art, Conceptual Art. Artists working in these fields use a variety of media and techniques.

One of the works is “Ice Watch” by Olafur Eliasson. In 2014, the artist brought 12 large pieces of Greenland ice to a square in Copenhagen for the first time. The artist’s action took place during the UN – IPCC report on climate change. The following year in Paris, at a conference on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the artist repeated this work and exposed and installed 12 pieces of ice in Pantheon Square. The audience had the opportunity to see, touch and embrace the glacial ice, which gradually disappeared before their eyes. Thus, through immersion, the artist managed to find a way to communicate between people in the square and climate change. The installation was later shown in other cities.

Florian Reber’s documentary project “The Story of Change” is inspiring. The work contains stories about how climate change is affecting communities in some of the most famous mountain ranges on the planet. Travelling by bicycle across the Alps from Trieste (Adriatic Sea) to Cannes (Mediterranean Sea), he covered 180 miles. Along the way, the researcher talked to farmers, foresters, conservationists, tourism professionals, climbers and professional athletes, psychologists, writers and journalists about climate change. He published stories on his website. The researcher resumed the project in June 2019 on the way to New York Climat Week.

The ballet “Dead Reckoning” by KT Nelson is another amazing artistic attempt to analyse the influence of humans on the world. Inspired by a trip to Death Valley, an ecologically sensitive area of California, the choreographer was particularly concerned about climate change and the possible destruction of the world. Joan Genreno created music for the ballet. The sounds of falling trees can be clearly heard in the repeated chords of the cello. The ballet was premiered in 2016.

The artworks mentioned above represent the possibility of communicating a world that is changing because of climate change through the objects of art.


Over the past year, more and more people around the world started to voice their opinions on climate change and related issues. One of the most well-known events currently taking place in Europe are the demonstrations of “Fridays for Future” and “Extinction Rebellion” .

Klima-Demo, Berlin / Photo: Simon Hertling

The majority of those taking part in demonstrations hold banners with slogans. The banners are usually made of recyclable materials (such as old cardboard) and are painted with various signs, drawings and inscriptions. The majority of banners are individual and reflect not only the views of the whole group, but also personal attitudes towards the problem of climate change.

Here are eight of the most popular slogans seen at the #fridaysforfuture global climate demonstration in Berlin on 20 September 2019: 1. People over profit, 2. Action now, 3. Make Earth great again , 4. Vote for Clean Energy, 5. Our future, 6. Act Now or we Will , 7. We want our hopes and dreams back, 8. Science not Silence.

These creative practices can be interpreted as expressions of social dynamics and can be traced back to art activism. It is an effective means of expressing citizenship and communicating social, political problems and ways to solve them.

Understanding social and political contexts turns the simple cardboard sign of a protester into its own creative entity and a grand, self-evolving artistic act in general. A protest rally is a form of organisation that must emerge outside of the usual political institutions. That is, a form of politics that is not conducted through formal political means. Based on this concept, it can be assumed that the banners used in environmental protests are art objects created with non-traditional artistic means and, moreover, function in a political context.

It is important to emphasise that any of the messages presented at the demonstrations are not propaganda, but only expressions of public or personal opinion on climate change issues.

So there is a creative act that aims to make the public aware of climate change and to make the problem more obvious. The form of art enters here as a medium in the communication process between individuals and the social system of values and norms.

Art activism

Art can make us think about the problem of climate change and perceive it personally for each of us, which will certainly change our perception and distance to nature and our environment.

Klima-Demo, Berlin / Photo: Simon Hertling

Highlighting the artistic-activist dimension of climate demonstrations opens up an exciting perspective on the political dimension of artistic creation. In this interpretation, questions of access rights and processes of identification play a role above all. Defining posters on demonstrations as art activism democratises this contemporary praxis.