Urban Humanities and Their Publics

Art and Climate Change: Reckoning with Reality

Man sitting on a bench on a boardwalk staring straight into the camera

Climate change can be a difficult reality for people to grapple with. In fact, most feelings and responses to climate change are “textbook indicators of trauma”. These feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, anger, fear, and even dissociation make it difficult for people to talk about climate change. How do we come to terms with it? One possible solution: through art and museums.

In February of 2019, the Climate Museum and The New York Review of Books gathered at the Writers Room Inc. in Lower Manhattan to discuss the use of art to reckon with climate change. The event, titled “Reckoning with Climate Change: a Pathway through Art” focused on a five-borough art installation throughout New York City, created by artist Justin Guariglia who was a panelist at the event. His work consisted of ten solar-powered road signs in unexpected places that flashed texts calling attention to climate change. Signs read “End Climate Injustice”, “Climate Denial Kills”, and “500,000,000 Climate Refugees” amongst other messages in English, Spanish, Chinese, French, and Russian. Other panelists included Miranda Massie, director of the Climate Museum, Emily Raboteau, author and professor at City College of New York, and Mikael Awake, author and professor at City College of New York. The art installation, titled Climate Signals, inspired Emily Raboteau to write an essay for the New York Review Daily about her experience touring Climate Signals which connected her with Mikael Awake when she posted about the signs on Twitter. Raboteau writes about how Climate Signals allowed her to reckon with climate change and prompted her to take more action.

Art helps us reimagine the future and connect with reality. As Raboteau said, art acts as a window to topics and changes the path of emotion. “It makes you confront climate change”, she mentions in referring to Climate Signals. The highway signs represented to her an authoritative caution that made her face her own feelings about climate change. “You sense your own insignificance and the sublime,” Guarglia states in Raboteau’s essay. We can use art to express our frustrations or turn to art to make us feel something we might not even realize is there. It helps keep us connected and in conversation with each other.

Sustainable solutions to climate change are demanding and urgent, but not beyond the capacity to achieve. These solutions psychologically feel more attainable if a sense of community is established. Guarglia, who had formerly worked with NASA to take photos of the melting ice sheets in Greenland, explains that art and museums help bridge the gap between the “experts and the average person”. Climate Signals brought Raboteau and Mikael Awake together when they exchanged their experience with the installation on Twitter, and now consider each other to be close friends. The two met in person and toured each climate signal throughout the five boroughs, which Raboteau writes about in her essay “Climate Signs.” Art and museums create a physical space that makes the community visible, alleviating feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. 

Miranda Massie and Raboteau point out the cultural influence of art and museums. Though museums are not fully accessible, there are 850 million museum visitors annually in the U.S. And with such a wide audience being reached, they can become powerful influences. Miranda Massie, former environmental justice lawyer and current director of the Climate Museum, explains this is why she felt the need to start a climate museum in New York City. “Museums are deeply trusted”; Massie hopes that the Climate Museum will put some popularity and truthfulness to the crisis. It is the first museum in the United States dedicated to climate change. Massie’s mission is to grow a “cultural shift” which brings together science, art, and urban design to find solutions to climate change. Climate change can be abstract and hard to fathom. Museums give a “visceral sense of reality”.

In wrapping up, the panelists reminded us that it is important for us to notice how we are coming to terms with climate change, such as through anxiety, fear, or anger. The use of art and museums can serve as emotional outlets. They create spaces for us to connect and talk about the reality of climate change, in hopes that we can have an open, ongoing dialogue. Art and museums help put us all on the same page. After all, Raboteau writes “we won’t make progress without each other”.

The Climate Museum is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 2014. They are currently in the process of creating a permanent space for the museum. For more information or to make a donation, click here https://climatemuseum.org/donations

Works Cited

Kiehl, J. (2019, April 04). The problem with ignoring people’s emotions about climate change. Retrieved from https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/04/scientists-dont-ignore-peoples-emotions/

Museum Facts & Data. (2018, December 11). Retrieved from https://www.aam-us.org/programs/about-museums/museum-facts-data/

Raboteau, E. (2019, February 1). Climate Signs. Retrieved from https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/02/01/climate-signs/