For at least a generation, there’s been a scientific consensus on climate change: Human activity is warming the planet, with potentially disastrous consequences.
So why has public opinion lagged? Why does climate still rank so low on most people’s priority lists?
Among those seeking solutions is Creatives for Climate, a new group organized by documentary filmmaker Kirsi Jansa that held its second workshop this past Saturday. The 25 participants in the day-long session in East Liberty included visual artists, educators, a singer, an architect, an art therapist, a grad student in public policy, a psychologist and a fish biologist. Some guiding principles that emerged on getting people engaged with climate: Science alone does not convince, or motivate. Rather than being made to fear a world of heat and flood, people need an attractive vision of the future to embrace. And building community around climate action is more important than spurring people to individual action.
Workshop participants included Mandi Lyon, an educator with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Teaching the science for 30 years did not lead to more people caring about climate change,” she says. One thing we need, Jansa emphasized in introductory remarks, is a new narrative about where we’ve been and where we’re going as a society, a story that will make confronting climate seem not only smart, but desirable.
Panelists discussed employing art for this purpose. Architect Robert Ferry said sources of renewable energy, now seen as utilitarian, could be designed to be “sexy — something that people want to have.” Ferry and his wife, Elizabeth Monoian, run the Pittsburgh-based Land Art Generator Initiative, whose four international design competitions have produced 800 ideas, including a giant “Energy Duck” feathered with solar panels and a Solar Hourglass that would power 1,000 homes. “We’re presenting a positive science fiction that we hope is not science fiction for long,” said Ferry.
Participants also made art. Educator Ann Rosenthal asked them each to first write down a vision of life on earth 100 years from now, and then, using materials including images cut from magazines, to create a small mixed-media work reflecting that vision. “When I just think of climate change, I feel like this big sort of weight is coming down on me,” says Rosenthal. “It doesn’t inspire action. … To me, at least, it’s much more hopeful to think about how we can create the world that we want.” Workshoppers cut, arranged and pasted images of smiling kids, clear skies and healthy wildlife.
In a week when the new head of the U.S. EPA, Scott Pruitt, went on record denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the earth, participants found it helpful to imagine not a disaster-movie future, but a best-case scenario. That approach jibes with workshop leader Joylette Portlock’s call to transform climate change’s “have-tos” into “get-tos”: “giving people that ‘I want it,’ that sense of enjoyment,” says Portlock, who heads the nonprofit Communitopia.
But that dynamic also requires creating community around climate. “Community-driven life is really what you need for joy and meaning in your life,” said panelist Mary Beth Mannarino, a clinical psychologist.
For people concerned about climate but afraid to bring it up in conversation, a sense of isolation can be debilitating. “We feel like each of us individually has to do everything,” said Portlock. Conversely, she noted, “People do actually do more when the community around them is acting,” noted Portlock. “That’s so powerful, that feeling that you don’t have to do it by yourself.”
As an educator with the Carnegie’s Climate and Urban Systems Partnership, Mandi Lyon has helped organize interactive climate-themed displays at local community festivals, including the Three Rivers Arts Festival. She says surveys indicate that after seeing such displays, people feel more comfortable talking to each other about climate. It’s just a matter of opening the door.
“Pittsburgh is already on board with climate change as a problem caused by humans,” says Lyon. “They just want to know what to do.”
And the more we talk about it, the more they’ll know.