The Arts Make A Surprising Ally In Raising Climate Awareness

When I was in school, my favourite subjects were math and the sciences — fields well suited to a personality that thrived on facts, data and certainty.

My least favourite subjects were humanities and the arts. They introduced vagueness, interpretation and other uncomfortable notions that challenged my neat black-and-white views of the world.

But with the wisdom of a few years, I’ve come to appreciate that not sees the world through the frank lens of science. That’s partly why, despite an enormity of compelling facts and evidence, the significance of climate change and other environmental challenges doesn’t resonate with .

It’s also why the arts can be a powerful means of the environmental challenges we face and conveying the urgency of action. Here are a few outstanding examples worth checking into.

: Edward Burtynsky
Perhaps nothing is more impactful or jarring to the senses than a well-taken photograph, and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is a master. Burtynsky has been documenting human impacts on our planet through the lens of his camera for 30 years. The result? Thousands of powerful, high-resolution, large-format images that are as hauntingly beautiful as they are disturbing: stark open pit mines, fouled industrial sites, eerily-luminescent tailings ponds and more, taken from small helicopters, drones and an oversized selfie stick.

Burtynsky’s disquieting photos are on display in galleries, airports and other public spaces around the world. Themed slideshows can be viewed at

Music: Daniel Crawford
In 2013, cellist Daniel Crawford and his professor at the University of Minnesota wondered if rising global temperatures might be better understood if presented as sound instead of numbers. So they took temperature data from the past 132 years and set it to music; one note for each year. As a baseline, they used the very coldest year in that timeline, 1909, as the very lowest note playable on a cello.

The result is a two-minute composition, “Song of a Warming Planet.” It begins with a long sequence of deep, resonant notes. But just before the midway point (corresponding with about 1930), the notes begin to rise in pitch — subtly at first but then (corresponding with the past 15 years) much more sharply. It ends on a piercing high note three octaves above where it started.

“Song of a Warming Planet” can be viewed and heard at It is made more impactful by the postscript that, if current temperature trends continue, by 2100 the music will not only exceed the upper limits of a cello; it will be beyond the range of human hearing.

An updated version, “Planetary Bands, Warming World,” features a string quartet concurrently playing the temperature records of Earth’s four distinct climate zones, from the tropics to the poles; it can be heard at

Poetry: Shane Koyczan
If you’re prone to being whisked away by verse, prepare to be swept away by Shane Koyczan’s “.”

Koyczan is a spoken word poet — renowned for his words, but even more for the way he recites them in live performance. He rocketed to fame after performing at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

“Shoulders” opens with the legend of Atlas, the mythical Greek figure charged with carrying the heavens upon his shoulders. Koyczan likens Atlas to a single drop of rain — and suggests that each of us is like a single drop of rain, too. He muses that, just as it’s unfair to hold Atlas responsible for supporting the universe, it would be unfair to hold a single drop responsible for making clean again. But, we, the drops of rain, are capable of cleansing when we work together. Collectively, we are Atlas.

There’s much more to “Shoulders,” and you can hear it at (Warning to the sensitive: one little vocal transgression.)

: Isaac Cordal
Spanish street artist Isaac Cordal specializes in creating miniature clay sculptures and placing them in urban environments to draw attention to social or political issues. In 2014, he created figures representing arguing politicians, placed them neck-deep in a pool of water on a Berlin street and called the scene “Electoral Campaign.”

But as sometimes happens with art, viewers saw things differently. The sculpture quickly became better known as “Politicians ” and went viral on the internet. (Is it obsolete with the signing of the Paris Accord? Hopefully, if good words are accompanied by strong action — but the result of the U.S. election threatens to turn back the clock of progress.)

You can see “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” and learn more about it at Also shown are works from the artist’s Waiting for Climate Change series.

When you first look at an image from Seattle photographer Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers” project, you might see a beach scene, a whale or even Mount . But click on the image and you zoom in to discover it’s really a collage depicting a consequence of mass consumption.

The beach scene 400,000 plastic bottle caps, equal to the average number consumed in the U.S. every minute. The whale 50,000 plastic bags, equal to the estimated number of pieces of floating plastic in every square mile in the world’s oceans. Mount Denali is really 24,000 logos from the GMC Yukon Denali, equal to six weeks of sales of that model SUV in 2004. All metaphors for human progress: beauty which, examined closely, often reveals uncomfortable underlying realities.

Jordan’s artistic renditions of trash and mass consumption can be viewed at

Music: Baba Brinkman
Typically, rap music on my radio provokes an automatic reaction: change the station. But then along comes Baba Brinkman.

Brinkman is a B.C. rapper whose past albums have delved into literature, evolution, religion and medicine. This fall, he released The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. It’s a project he describes as “knowledge-based hip-hop for hungry minds and switched-on citizens.”

Even for non-fans, it’s worth a listen: its 24 tracks cover the science, politics and economics of climate change better than most books. “Greenhouse” is a review of two centuries of climate science history. “Party Don’t Stop” is about the fossil-fuel world we have created, and “Ride Electric” covers solutions. The final track, “Makin’ Waves,” is a call for personal and political action. Interspersed are cameos by Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and others.

If you’re inclined to dismiss The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos as a rant from the fringe, don’t: Brinkman has actually had his compositions peer-reviewed for accuracy by climate scientists. Listen and download at

There’s much more: photographer James Balog’s classic film, Chasing Ice; Massachusetts artist Erica Daborn’s climate change-themed murals; a techno-rap of 60 years of rising CO2 in our atmosphere set to music by scientists at the University of Washington;’s spectacular animations that bring our global carbon budget to life; Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary, Before the Flood; or, from Stanford University researchers, an orchestral arrangement of 100 years in the life of an Alaskan forest, where each instrument represents a species either disappearing or emerging as a result of rising temperatures.

When data won’t do
When it comes to climate change, the math and science are clear — but not to everyone. The arts can be powerful allies in helping us all understand the severity of the challenge and the urgency for action. The above examples are proof.

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About Carl Duivenvoorden