The poster is political: how artists are challenging climate change

Peter Christoff, University of Melbourne

We all have a poster we remember. Mine was taped to a bookshop window in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran. A stark black and white image of a boy as young as I was then, about 13, stared out at me. He was naked from the chest up. He looked at me with sad eyes. The skin on the lower part of his face and neck had flowed into his chest. The scarring was horrific. The poster had two words on it. Above the boy, “Vietnam”, and below, “Napalm”.

Modern posters were invented at the end of the 19th Century. New lithographic printing technologies had just enabled the mass-production of colourful images on vast sheets of paper. These posters immediately became startling confrontations for the spectator and the flaneur and, eventually, commodities in their own right.

From advertising to propaganda, the best posters have a capacity to arrest attention, to disrupt, surprise and seduce. Even in an age dominated by social media, they still have the power to shock.

Summer, Alfons Mucha, 1896.
via Wikimedia

The poster’s design is, at its best, art. In Paris at the close of the Belle Époque, Toulouse Lautrec’s voluptuous images of dancing women advertised the Moulin Rouge and the voyeuristic world of cabaret. Jules Cheret’s and Alfons Mucha’s ornate, tendril-haired beauties lured passers-by to drink, smoke, attend the theatre. During the first and second world wars, posters recruited the young and innocent to self-sacrifice and slaughter. After the wars, they recruited everyone to consume – movies, cars, clothes, cosmetics.

Over time, we have learnt to read the visual rhetoric of posters – their short-hand symbolic language – almost automatically. So much so that when Andy Warhol produced his iconic Campbell’s soup tin posters, he exploited and exploded the uncritical consumption of such image messages. He parodied and ironized simple advertising, cynically and humorously turning a design image into an uber-commodity that made nothing and everything “art”.

Posters also use the disruptive effect of (mis)placement to deliver their punch. The unexpected encounter at the tram stop or on a billboard engages you, forces you to look again at something – the stocking, the can of food, the inescapable face with longing eyes – in an unpredictable location.

Still, in our image-saturated world, repeated exposure to pictures of disasters and tragedies can generate a sort of compassion fatigue, well captured by the term “disaster porn”.

For artists, climate change poses two additional problems. Firstly, visualising its trends and processes is an extraordinary challenge. Its incremental shifts – the invisible accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, the upward creep of average temperatures and sea levels, or declines in average rainfall – are largely hidden from us. All we see and experience are the symptoms, such as wild weather events.

Jon Campbell, for Climarte.

Secondly, the numbing imagery of global warming’s physical impacts – melting icebergs, raging bushfires – diverts us from reflecting on global warming’s cultural implications.

How will we navigate a vanishing world? What images will our children’s picture books contain if many of the “charismatic” animals we take for granted are endangered or extinct? What stories will we tell our grandchildren if our familiar landscapes – our forests or beaches, for example – are destroyed or swept away? Again, how to visualise these changes without resorting to clichés and the familiar iconography of “natural” disasters?

Poster art is well equipped to surprise and provoke us to confront a future that is avoidable and to suggest others we might prefer.

Today, the CLIMARTE Poster Project will be launched in Melbourne. Eleven artists have been commissioned to design posters that will be plastered on walls across the city.

These posters are unpredictable images about an uncertain future. They are not straightforward “messages” selling you a concept or a product. Indirect, nuanced, and occasionally obscure in ways that advertising and propaganda rarely are, they force you to stop and puzzle. They are as strikingly out-of-place as wild weather.

Siri Hayes, for Climarte.

For instance, Siri Hayes’ The Southern Skies all a Swirl gives us the lyricism of the landscape at Toora in Victoria, laden with wind farms and hope. Yet it is over-written by gyres reminiscent of and quoting Van Gogh’s turbulent spirals. The visible world struggles against a menacing meteorological prospect. The cyclonic forces of climate change lurk just offshore.

By contrast, some of the other posters seem unusually heavy with words. Nature is, in a sense, always beyond us – an unknowable material reality lurking just outside our capacities to apprehend it, beyond the cultural fringe.

And so the fading letters in Jon Campbell’s Great Barrier Reef are as good a representation of nature, in one sense, as any other. The words’ erasure reminds us that even the little we think we know will vanish before we have seen enough of it to understand or depict it better. (It is an added bitter irony that the poster was in production as extreme ocean warming was bleaching corals along much of the reef.)

The caustically funny poster HazelShould seems straightforward but is equally slippery. For most of us, electricity is an abstraction, produced “invisibly” using coal that is burnt out of sight and therefore out of mind. Making the connections and cutting emissions, in an everyday sense, become that much harder to do.

So the artists Gabrielle de Vietri & Will Foster put a name and a face to the problem. By personalising Victoria’s Hazelwood power station – the worst polluting generator in the developed world – they also personalise the moral choices of politicians and others keeping this lethal antique going. Abstract no longer.

Angela Brennan, for Climarte.
Author provided

Meanwhile, Angela Brennan’s The Future is Not What It Used To Be is subtle and oblique. Its graphic style nostalgically hints at “cooler times” in the 50s and 60s (as well as quoting Mondrian) and reflects on a past when the imaginable future didn’t include climate change’s particular option for planetary catastrophe.

Despite their considerable individuality, these posters embody a common artistic intent. They are simultaneously incitements to contemplation and to action. In them, we will find or recover something fragile, meditative, subtle, even beautiful, which also reminds us that to protect threatened fragility and beauty we must act now.

The Conversation

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The things people ask about the scientific consensus on climate change

John Cook, The University of Queensland

It’s been almost a month since the paper I co-authoured on the synthesis of research into the scientific consensus on climate change was published. Surveying the many studies into scientific agreement, we found that more than 90% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming.

It’s a topic that has generated much interest and discussion, culminating in American Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse highlighting our study on the US Senate floor this week.

My co-authors and I even participated in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on the online forum Reddit, answering questions about the scientific consensus.

While my own research indicates that explaining the scientific consensus isn’t that effective with those who reject climate science, it does have a positive effect for people who are open to scientific evidence.

Among this “undecided majority”, there was clearly much interest with the session generating 154,000 page views and our AMA briefly featuring on the Reddit homepage (where it was potentially viewed by 14 million people).

Here is an edited selection of some of the questions posed by Reddit readers and our answers.

Q: Why is this idea of consensus so important in climate science? Science isn’t democracy or consensus, the standard of truth is experiment.

If this were actually true, wouldn’t every experiment have to reestablish every single piece of knowledge from first principles before moving on to something new? That’s obviously not how science actually functions.

Consensus functions as a scaffolding allowing us to continue to build knowledge by addressing things that are actually unknown.

Q: Does that 97% all agree to what degree humans are causing global warming?

Different studies use different definitions. Some use the phrase “humans are causing global warming” which carries the implication that humans are a dominant contributor to global warming. Others are more explicit, specifying that humans are causing most global warming.

Within some of our own research, several definitions are used for the simple reason that different papers endorse the consensus in different ways. Some are specific about quantifying the percentage of human contribution, others just say “humans are causing climate change” without specific quantification.

We found that no matter which definition you used, you always found an overwhelming scientific consensus.

Q: It’s very difficult to become/remain a well-respected climate scientist if you don’t believe in human-caused climate change. Your papers don’t get published, you don’t get funding, and you eventually move on to another career. The result being that experts either become part of the 97% consensus, or they cease to be experts.

Ask for evidence for this claim and enjoy the silence (since they won’t have any).

As a scientist, the pressure actually is mostly reversed: you get rewarded if you prove an established idea wrong.

I’ve heard from contrarian scientists that they don’t have any trouble getting published and getting funded, but of course that also is only anecdotal evidence.

You can’t really disprove this thesis, since it has shades of conspiratorial thinking to it, but the bottom line is there’s no evidence for it and the regular scientific pressure is to be adversarial and critical towards other people’s ideas, not to just repeat what the others are saying.

Q: What’s the general reasoning of the other 3%?

Interesting question. It is important and diagnostic that there is no coherent theme among the reasoning of the other 3%. Some say “there is no warming”, others blame the sun, cosmic rays or the oceans.

Those opinions are typically mutually contradictory or incoherent: Stephan Lewandowsky has written elsewhere about a few of the contradictions.

Q: Do we have any insight on what non-climate scientists have to say about climate change being caused by CO2?

In a paper published last year, Stuart Carlton and colleagues surveyed biophysical scientists across many disciplines at major research universities in the US.

They found that about 92% of the scientists believed in anthropogenic climate change and about 89% of respondents disagreed with the statement: “Climate change is independent of CO2 levels”. In other words, about 89% of respondents felt that climate change is affected by CO2.

Q: It could be argued that climate scientists may be predisposed to seeing climate change as more serious, because they want more funding. What’s your perspective on that?

Any climate scientist who could convincingly argue that climate change is not a threat would:

  1. be famous
  2. get a Nobel prize
  3. plus a squintillion dollars in funding
  4. a dinner date with the Queen
  5. lifelong gratitude of billions of people.

So if there is any incentive, it’s for a scientist to show that climate change is not a threat.

Q: I was discussing politics with my boss the other day, and when I got to the topic of global warming he got angry, said it’s all bullshit, and that the climate of the planet has been changing for millennia. Where should I go to best understand all of the facts?

Skeptical Science has a list of common myths and what the science says.

But often facts are not enough, especially when people are angry and emotional. The Skeptical Science team has made a free online course that addresses both the facts and the psychology of climate denial.

You can also access the individual Denial101 videos.

Also, remember that you may not convince him, but if you approach him rationally and respectfully you may influence other people who hear your discussion.

The Conversation

John Cook, Climate Communication Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.