Lessons Learned from Artists at COP26 » Yale Climate Connections
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – Last November, my home town of Glasgow hosted the UN climate change conference COP26. For two weeks the city was taken over: costumed delegates rushed to the Glasgow Underground; armed police blocked the roads; sculptures appeared on abandoned land; welcome banners hung at churches, temples and gurdwaras. During this time, I frequented official UN and UK government spaces and took part in many side events organized by research bodies, campaigns and arts organisations.
Towards what end? Learn more about the roles the arts play at the conference. Part of my work at Creative Carbon Scotland, an environmental arts charity, focuses on a publicly available online resource called Creative Sustainability Library, which documents collaborations involving artists to achieve environmental sustainability goals. There is no doubt that the arts have an important role to play in addressing climate change, but what form might this take in the unique context of COP? I will try to share some key learnings.
The strengths of artists in the face of the climate challenge
Why, some might ask, should the arts be involved in the fight against climate change? Well, the current climate emergency is increasingly being recognized as a cultural problem and also a technical, scientific and infrastructural one. We don’t just need to develop and deploy new technologies: we also need to find fundamentally new ways of thinking, imagining and living, not just as individuals but collectively. Organizations like Climate Awareness illustrate this need, showing that providing people with research results is not enough to encourage action, and that creative approaches are also needed to help fill this gap. AuthorAmitav Ghosh described the climate crisis as a “crisis of culture and therefore of the imagination”.
Artist Frances Whitehead explores this question in her article “What do artists know? », highlighting the skills that creative practitioners possess, which can be extremely useful to those working on climate change. Artists are trained to find new ways of thinking and understanding issues. They are competent and versatile collaborators and communicators. They use visual, sound, kinesthetic and narrative methods that offer alternative perspectives for understanding.
Creative Carbon Scotland Library of Creative Sustainability documents projects making good use of these skills. Many examples involve deep, long-term collaborations in which artists and conservationists work together over a long period, learning from each other and developing innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
In some ways, the situation around summits like COP26 can look like the exact opposite: a two-week circus comes to town and then abruptly disappears. How could collaborations between the arts and ecology respond effectively to this unusual situation?
Cultures and conference venues yearn for a touch of creativity
Before COP26, I was in contact with Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat, co-founder and curator of the organization based in Switzerland DISPLACEMENT: Uncertain Journeyslike us co-author of a new article for the library. DISPLACEMENT brings artistic interventions to intergovernmental policy conferences, seeking to improve international policies supporting people displaced by natural disasters and the effects of global warming. It brings artistic work into the often dry and formal spaces of international conferences to re-engage policy makers with the human realities of their scientific and policy work and to encourage more effective and ambitious action.
Exploring the official venue for COP26 recalls Hannah’s description of policy conferences as places in need of creative intervention. The largely windowless space felt cut off from the outside world. There were artistic contributions including sculptures, photos, and cartoons around the building, but they were largely relegated to spaces like hallways and foyers. In contrast, the most effective uses of art were in collaborative settings not relegated to a separate space.
For example, an event at the Peatland Pavillion featured storytelling, a new art film, and a peat bag to get your hands on. It made me feel fully engaged for the first time today. This sentiment was consistent with Hannah’s own experiences of DISPLACEMENT: she found that many of their most effective artistic interventions were participatory. Artist Lucy Orta, for example, distributed a “World Antarctic Passport” to delegates. Artists Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormand-Skeaping engaged in direct discussions with official COP26 delegates.
Also present at COP26 was Jonathan Colin from Chocó, an organization based in Colombia Más Arte Más Action (More Art, More Action, MAMA for short). MOM specializes in collaborative environmental justice projects between artists, scholars, researchers, activists and thinkers, focusing on their local context in Chocó and international connections. Its approach to COP26, unlike that of DISPLACEMENT, involved working outside of official spaces and with indigenous leaders, artists, grassroots activists and other underrepresented people in official spaces.
Since 2019, MAMA has been working on the Diálogos Possibles (Possible Dialogues) project with the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC). MAMA and OPIAC produced three films in Colombia’s indigenous territories in 2021 exploring indigenous peoples’ struggles with climate change and justice.
These films were screened locally in the territories but were also used to amplify their messages internationally. They were screened at cultural venues in Glasgow during COP26 and served as the basis for discussions on climate justice and future climate action. The focus at the COP was not on influencing the outcomes of the conference itself, but rather on educating and building movements from below.
The same goes for many of the most striking artistic interventions around COP26, few of which sought to influence policy makers at the conference, but tended to work with local groups and visiting activists to build understanding. , create new connections and build more sustainable movements.
Lessons learned and the critical need for collaboration
Despite clear differences between working with policymakers and grassroots activists, there are key lessons to be learned from both DISPLACEMENT and MAMA.
The first is that the arts can open spaces for meaningful discussion, allowing people to think in new and different ways. Both organizations use artistic methods to break out of everyday thinking and create a sense of personal connection to climate impacts occurring at great distances.
Second, they both use art with other approaches in a collaborative way, with artists working to connect groups and communities. DISPLACEMENT attempts to help policy makers better understand the needs of people on the frontlines of climate change; MAMA tries to empower frontline communities to reach and influence decision makers.
For both organizations, collaboration is essential. To be able to use artistic methods to achieve environmental goals, artists and conservationists must develop a deep understanding of each other’s values, skills, goals, and beliefs. To do this, they must work together over a long period of time to get to know each other, a time-consuming process that nevertheless leads to long-term benefits, and the ability to capitalize on brief moments such as those provided by the COP26 summit. .
Now that COP26 is over, it is essential to maintain the momentum, moving from short-term artistic interventions made around COP26 to long-term collaborations that build change in a more sustainable way. Resources like the Library of Creative Sustainability seek to show how these collaborations can work effectively.
The activities around COP26 have shown how artistic communities are aware of the role they can play in the fight against climate change. But it’s by working with others beyond the arts that they can make the biggest difference, whether at a convention or on the streets.
Lewis Coenen-Rowe is Head of Culture/SHIFT at Creative Carbon Scotlandwhere he directs Creative Sustainability Library.