Wanted: A New Kind of War Artist

03/06/2014 09:26 | Updated 02 August 2014

I was fortunate to be invited to participate in a Climate Crunch workshop at London's historic Royal Society a couple of weeks ago. The Climate Crunch project is very interesting, and a useful briefing paper [opens as PDF] outlines some of the key issues. In short, the project

draws on the collective experience, research and policy insights of ESRC Climate Change Leadership Fellows to stimulate international debate and thinking. The fellows' research over the past 4 years suggests that we now face a 'climate crunch', a set of inter-related challenges combining to create an impasse in climate policy. These challenges relate to: i) acute failure of climate governance at multiple levels, ii) limited grasp of the critical rights, risks and responsibilities involved, and iii) fitness for purpose of the policy architecture.

This was the second time I'd been to the Royal Society's elegant home on the Nash-designed Carlton House Terrace in a few weeks. This is a familiar part of central London, situated as it is in St. James, and just to the west of the Duke of York Steps that lead from the Terrace down to the Mall. Since my late teens, most of my probably hundreds of visits would have seen me turning east at the foot of the steps and into the ICA -- the Institute of Contemporary Arts -- rather than west at the top to the Royal Society. These days, though, one may just as well find a science event at the ICA. While my most recent visit to the Royal Society had been for the ceremony announcing the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. So much for C.P. Snow's old 'two cultures' chestnut, about the arts and science knowing nothing of each other.

Following introductory remarks, and a series of presentations by the aforementioned ESRC Fellows, the Climate Crunch workshop broke up into three working groups to explore points of agreement and disagreement and to suggest ways out of the current policy impasse -- the 'climate crunch' of the title. The workshop was held under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't quote or tell you who the other twenty-odd participants were, but there were many useful conversations, and it was an opportunity for me to speak up for the role of the arts in climate policy, for new kinds of narratives and of storytelling about climate change, and to make a plea for new ways for artists and writers to be brought in to the field.

I have written about these issues before, both in my Science Museum novel Shackleton's Man Goes South, and (e.g.) on my blog, but it is worth saying again. When most writing about climate science and climate change is aimed at a policy audience, the science community can sometimes seem naïvely over-reliant on those same policy makers and on the news media to get the message across to wider publics. Whereas in practice (and however Earth-shatteringly important the material may be) I would argue that neither most politicians nor the news media -- in general -- can be relied upon to play the subject with a straight bat.

Here is an example. Publication a few weeks ago of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC's most hard-hitting and unequivocal report to date, the Working Group 2 report on the impacts of climate change (IPCC press release opens as PDF) was displaced on British news media by a rather woolly speech by UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne promoting the idea of 'full employment' (a speech that it is not actually listed on the Treasury's press releases and speeches page). This emotive story -- one that was impervious to criticism, for who would be foolish enough to say that they were not in favour of employment? -- effectively deprived the IPCC report of the lead spot and the serious discussion that it perhaps should have had; bumping it right down the schedule, even on BBC TV's serious news flagship programme Newsnight. If you missed it on the day, here is the running order summary of the Newsnight programme from that night, 31 March 2014:

Climate crunch, anyone? Back at the workshop, and following the discussion of rights, risks and responsibilities, another tripartite policy framework was fleetingly mentioned, that of 'long, loud and legal'. In this case, 'long, loud and legal' refers to the promotion of investment into low-carbon and climate change-mitigation technologies, where it was noted that investors need (as has been summarised elsewhere) 'long term time frames, legal commitments and positive state support' to make a managed transition from fossil fuel based investment into low-carbon technologies. Interestingly, and in parallel, the rubric 'long, loud and legal' might equally apply to the work of activists promoting fossil fuel divestment and protesting against e.g. oil industry sponsorship of the arts. One could similarly recognise long term vision, loud voices and legal challenges as being fundamental to the work of artist activists such as Liberate Tate and Platform.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak up at the Royal Society for the role of the arts and of storytelling in addressing the 'climate crunch'. I am encouraged too that these ideas were met with a great deal of vocal support from many of the influential people present, who agreed that surprising voices, new cultural approaches, and new kinds of narratives and storytelling are needed. Thinking about why no-one is reading the vitally important reports published by the IPCC, it is worth remembering that the phrase 'written by committee' is not usually an assurance of literary quality. It seems to me that right now, the climate science and policy communities actually need artists, writers, composers, film directors more than ever: people who know how to tell stories, however uncomfortable those stories might be, and who know how to reach new audiences with new ideas.

Models and expertise already exist for artistic intervention within the international scientific arena, models which might relatively simply be adapted and used to create not just 'flying visits', but deep and long-term engagements. One ready example is the artists' residency programme at CERN. Why not artists and writers in residence at the IPCC (or across its operations)?

Furthermore, when one increasingly hears it said (here, for example, by the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, during his recent keynote speech at MOMA PS1 in New York) that the prevention of civilisation-threatening climate change needs to be seen as this generation's global project, something that requires a World War II-style international mobilisation, perhaps there are other lessons to be learned from that conflict. At the outbreak of WWII (following the work that had been done by artists including Eric Ravilious, Wyndham Lewis and many others during the First World War), a new War Artists' Advisory Committee oversaw the appointment of artists who were charged not only with documenting the conflict at home and internationally, but -- given its scale and complexity -- with interpreting it too. Paperback collections of the War Artists' works sold in their many thousands. Could it be that the 'climate crunch' and the next phase of mobilisation against climate change demand the creation of a new kind of War Artist?