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Art Makes Environmental Change Real

Experiencing the science of climate change rather than learning about it.

By Bill Chameides - Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com

Brooklyn-based artist Eve Mosher puts a line of blue chalk around New York City to show the reach of a flood that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. Are performance artists like Mosher key to making environmental issues "vivid and accessible"? (Photo: Hose Cedeno)

Brooklyn-based artist Eve Mosher puts a line of blue chalk around New York City to show the reach of a flood that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. Are performance artists like Mosher key to making environmental issues “vivid and accessible”? (Photo: Hose Cedeno)


Convincing Americans that climate change is a real and present danger has proven to be a daunting and often frustrating challenge for scientists. Despite the growing evidence of climate change, and humanity as the driver of that change, there remains a hardcore 20 percent or so that reject the whole notion of it and a healthy percentage that remain unconvinced that humans are causing it. And on top of those dismal statistics, more than half of Americans believe that climate change does not represent a threat to them.

Scientific Data vs. Vividness and Accessibility

Apparently, scientific information, no matter how solid, is unable to persuade a good many people of the reality of climate change. At the same time we’re finding that less objective (and less scientifically valid) types of information can affect people’s views. One example is the so-called local warming effect where people’s experience of unusually warm or cold swings in their local temperature influencestheir beliefs about global temperature trends — despite scientists telling them that local temperatures are not a metric for global temperatures.

Writing on this subject in last week’s Nature Climate Change, author Lisa Zaval of Columbia University and co-authors conclude that, with regard to beliefs about global warming,

“personal experience with the daily weather tends to dominate more diagnostic but paler statistical information provided by experts … because the former is more vivid and accessible. … Specifically, respondents who perceived today’s temperature as being warmer than usual exhibited greater belief in and heightened concern for global warming and also donated more money to a climate change charity.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that local phenomena would have a larger impact on our core beliefs than information about global temperature trends. We’re a species evolved from hunter-gatherers who, to survive on the savanna, were necessarily attuned to local conditions and personal experiences. Some, it would appear, need more than scientific lectures to overcome such “hardwiring.” (E.O. Wilson’s “Social Conquest of Earth“ provides a fascinating treatise on this aspect of our heritage.)

This apparent irrationality, this hardwiring barrier if you will, might cause some to despair of ever making progress on an intellectually complicated issue like climate change. But despair accomplishes nothing. We just need to find a way to penetrate through the hardwiring, to find something that, in the words of Zaval et al., is “vivid and accessible.”

Enter the Performance Artist

I wonder if performance artists hold one of the keys. Performance art is defined in a variety of ways. (See here and here. See also this clip from “Sex and the City”; HT @TheAtlantic.) I use the term here to describe art whose essence is the experience of it as opposed to the piece itself.

For example, consider the artist Eve Mosher and her HighWaterLine project, whose tag line is “visualizing climate change.” The genesis for the project grew out of a desire to communicate the threat of climate change — a global problem she felt could be more easily understood if localized. After reading the Metropolitan East Coast Assessment, she felt that the risks to New York posed by sea level rise could be presented in a new way. The standard approach is to create maps showing what land will be underwater if sea level rises by a certain amount like this New York City one. But while it portrays a pretty grim future for residents and fans of the Big Apple, it’s hard to project yourself into a two-dimensional image.

So Mosher took a different approach. She traversed the city pushing a line marker filled with blue chalk. And, much like a grounds crew member at Yankee Stadium demarcating the foul lines before a game, Mosher drew a line across the city marking the 10-foot contour above sea level, an elevation that corresponds closely with the reach of a 100-year flood. Today a flood reaching that line has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year, but by mid-century that percentage could increase by five-fold. (See NYT slide show.)

It’s one thing to look at a map and see where flooding may occur, it’s another to realize that the spot where you’re standing (especially if you’re pretty far inland) will be underwater some day, thanks in part to climate change. That’s the power of performance art; or at least that’s what Mosher, who has now expanded her project to other cities, hopes.

Read the rest of this story at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com

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