The interaction of climate and culture is a long and lively field of scientific investigation. Earth scientists are increasingly working with their archeologist colleagues to explain the impact of the environment and climate change on the rise and fall of past societies. Some examples of the questions this type of work has tackled include: How did climate change impact the expansion and retreat of the Norse in Greenland or the Garamantes in the Sahara? Was deforestation the final blow to a struggling Mayan civilization?
While it is certainly important to understand the impact of climate on culture, as pressing is the need to understand the impact of culture on our understanding of climate change. Decades after scientists began to warn us about the serious consequences we face in a warming world, the latest polls show that the majority of the public believes that global warming is real and that human activities are influencing it. But there is still a large gap between the urgency of the latest scientific reports and public pressure to take action. Popular culture can play an important role in bridging that gap.
In the past few weeks, global warming has been on the cover of Time and Vanity Fair and had major coverage in other national news and popular magazines. Three very accessible books on the subject were published this spring – one by a scientist and two by talented journalists. News reports and books have been the traditional way of educating the public about the science and impact of climate change. Another traditional medium – the documentary – is about to break out of its usual PBS habitat and hit mainstream cinemas with An Inconvenient Truth and even local churches with The Great Warming. One film, Melting Planet, will even try to make you laugh while exploring this weighty topic= Climate change had its first big break in The Day After Tomorrow. Now we will see if it has real star power.
But is this enough to get people fired up about combating global warming?
We need to reach the public where they are. And most Americans, for a large part of their day, are in front of the TV. Environmental Defense has teamed up with the Ad Council to produce two powerful public service announcements (PSAs) on global warming – the first of their kind. Given the history of PSAs in creating iconic images and slogans that have helped change America for the better – Rosie the Riveter, the anti-littering campaign with Iron Eyes Cody, and the United Negro College Fund’s “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” to name just a few – there is reason to hope that these new ads will have similar impact.
But we need more than clever slogans and images to help Americans realize the complex global changes we are helping to create by our everyday actions. Would public opinion and action be further along today if Ross from Friends had been a climatologist rather than a paleontologist? Could a TV show with a significant scientific component even be popular? The popularity of CSI franchise is a good sign, and another newer show provides further reason to hope. In CBS’s Numb3rs, a mathematician uses his expertise to help his FBI officer brother solve crimes. It has recently broken into the top 20 of broadcast shows with over 13 million viewers according to the Nielson ratings. Texas Instruments has teamed up with the show to distribute kits to help students learn more about the math used in each episode. Obviously crime-solving is a large part of the popularity of both CSI and Numb3rs, but earth science is often like detective work, and the exotic locales and cool technology of working geologists and climatologists in the hands of a talented writer could make some entertaining TV.
Of course there are more ways to reach the public than through movies and TV. And many artists are already trying to use their talents to convey to the public the urgency of the issue and inspire them to further action. Rocker Melissa Etheridge has written a song for Al Gore’s forthcoming movie. Photographer Gary Baarsch has been documenting the current impact of climate change on habitats and cultures around the world. Alexis Rockman has painted some of America’s most famous landmarks as they might be in a much warmer future. And science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson offers us a thought problem on how America might deal with abrupt climate change in the not-to-distant future in his books Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and the still-to-be-published finale of this trilogy. All of this and more should be encouraged.
On a cautionary note, as helpful as the arts can be in spreading information, they can also spread misinformation. Michael Crichton’s climate change novel State of Fear recycled arguments from the leading global warming deniers who have been proven inaccurate time and again. Despite this, scientists should continue to collaborate with artists in order to bring the latest scientific understanding to the public in accessible ways, and artists should heed their responsibility to the public and the science to inspire, not mislead.
This time last year the writer Bill McKibben asked about climate change, “We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?” So far the answer seems to be not yet. But help is coming soon to a theater, television, radio station, art gallery and bookstore near you.
Ana Unruh Cohen is the Director for Environmental Policy at the Center for American Progress.