Can Art Change How We Think about Climate Change?

An interview with Anthony Leiserowitz

Alexis Frasz

This article is excerpted from a phone conversation between Anthony Leiserowitz and Alexis Frasz on June 8, 2016.

Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, was one of the thought leaders who participated in GIA’s Arts and Environmental Sustainability Thought Leader Forum. Leiserowitz is the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is an expert on public opinion and engagement with the issues of climate change and the environment. His research investigates the psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence environmental beliefs, attitudes, policy support, and behavior. He conducts research at the global, national, and local scales, including studies in the United States, China, and India. He is a board member of the KR Foundation and advises the UN Foundation, the Ad Council, the documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, and the China Center for Climate Change Communication at Renmin University. He is also the host of Climate Connections, a daily national radio program and podcast.

Alexis Frasz is codirector of Helicon Collaborative, a research and strategy consultancy working to elevate the role of culture in making communities better places for all people — more vital, sustainable, and just. Much of her current work focuses on the role of art and culture in addressing environmental sustainability.

AF Your work centers around the psychology behind public engagement with climate change. What are some of the most important lessons from psychology about how to engage people, and why are the arts important to this?

AL In broad terms, the brain has two very different processing systems: the experiential system and the analytic system. In Western culture, we have privileged the analytic system ever since the Enlightenment. The analytic system includes rationality, logic, and analysis. It is slow and deliberate and encodes reality in abstract words, symbols, and numbers. The experiential system, in contrast, is automatic, unconscious, intuitive. It encodes reality in association, images, and feelings. This area of brain function tends to be very strongly connected to our values, our judgments, our emotions, our attitudes, and ultimately to deeper narratives and worldviews. Since the Enlightenment, there has been a stark division of the two, and in Western culture, analysis has often been privileged over experience, reason over emotion. This assumed dichotomy underlies much of the way Western society has been organized.

Today, neuropsychology shows us that these systems are inseparable from one another. There is a continuous dance between reason and emotion, affect and analysis, in how we operate and make sense of the world. In fact, we now know that the experiential system, which is far older from an evolutionary standpoint, is far more powerful in terms of shaping most of our daily decisions and reactions to the world. Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant. The experiential system is the elephant and what the elephant wants to do it will do. A rider sitting up on top with reins and a whip can only control the elephant so far. The elephant can be directed by the rider, but the rider has to understand and work with the elephant’s tendencies.

Both systems are crucial when it comes to climate change, but most communication to date has been conveyed in very analytic terms — through the language of charts and graphs and mathematics and the findings of science. In part, that is because climate change is an issue that we only know about because of science, and science is one of the preeminent achievements of the analytical brain. It is also because scientists and policy analysts have dominated communication around the issue thus far, and this is the language they know. Charts and graphs and numbers are ways of communicating that appeal to the analytical brain but are not very effective with that deeper, and more powerful, emotional brain. The arts, on the other hand, are one of the most profound cultural innovations we have to communicate with our experiential processing system. Art can connect with our analytical brain, but it is particularly great at connecting with the more intuitive parts of ourselves and is one of the most effective ways of engaging us emotionally.

Art does this in many ways, but one of the most important is narrative, which is a powerful way of communicating from one person to another. It is the way human beings taught each other “Don’t eat this berry,” or “Get your water from this place,” or “Here is who you are and where you came from.” These stories long predate writing or cities or organized religion or any of the things we think of as modern civilization. Today we have developed technologies like film, television, books through which we construct incredibly sophisticated and elaborate stories and share them with each other.

In addition, when we enter into an artistic experience, we are willing to suspend disbelief and entertain ideas that we might normally be opposed to. The Day after Tomorrow was probably the first fictional movie dedicated to having climate change as a core plot element. It took a fair amount of artistic license with the science, but it reached hundreds of millions of people in a way that no documentary ever has, including An Inconvenient Truth. We did a study of that movie and found that people were willing to follow along with and accept information about climate change because it had been conveyed in the form of a story.

Art also works because it provides us with a vicarious experience of something we can’t experience directly, and so helps us imagine and learn. With some things you experience the outcome of your actions directly — you touch the stove and jerk your hand away immediately and learn that it is a bad thing to do. But there are plenty of things in life where you don’t get a second chance — eating that wrong berry will kill you. So vicarious experience is incredibly important; it is where we can learn and pass information on from one person or generation to the next. This is how art works: an artist sees or experiences something and uses art to convey that to another person.

Art also helps us answer some of the deepest, most profound questions of humanity. Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the proper relationship we should have with other human beings? What’s the proper relationship between human beings and the natural world from which we emerged? And for those that believe in the Divine, what’s the proper relationship between human beings and the Divine? Art has been a central tool by which human beings try to communicate answers about those questions to themselves and to other people. That is why religion has been one of the greatest sources of art all throughout human history, and why art has always been so essential to defining who we are as people.

AF Are there particular messages about climate change that if people understood them, would make all the difference?

AL There are five key concepts that we have found people need to understand about climate change: Scientists agree, it’s real, it’s us, it’s bad, but there’s hope.

There is still communication needed around the “scientists agree,” “it’s real” and “it’s us” pieces — 30 percent of Americans are not yet convinced that climate change is happening, and only about half understand that it’s mostly human caused.

To date, most communication about climate change, artistic and otherwise, has focused on the “it’s bad” part. This unfortunately has led to a lot of doom and gloom and fear-based appeals, which are problematic if they are conveyed without the final element — that there is hope. What is needed now is a sense that this is doable, this is solvable. We are culturally struggling with this right now. We’ve identified what we call the “hope gap”: even people who are the most worried and alarmed about climate change often don’t know what we can do as individuals or collectively to solve it. No one — not scientists, advocates, politicians, or artists — has done a good job at communicating this. In The Day after Tomorrow, climate change is unleashed on the world, and it becomes the story of a man trying to save his son. But the world undergoes immense catastrophe, and millions of people die. There is no solution in that movie, it’s just a warning. That seems to be the narrative that the arts have most often conveyed about climate change. They are Jeremiah, the prophet, crying in the wilderness.

We need to hear what can be done, and we need to see examples of what is happening that is positive and hopeful. We need role models, people who look like the diversity of America and other people around the world — not just presidents and prime ministers or CEOs — but everyday people who are taking action on climate change within their own lives and their own spheres and doing what they can to make a difference. These stories are happening all around us, but most of us don’t see them because the media doesn’t report them, and we (activists, artists, scientists, and policy makers) aren’t telling them either. We need to help people get inspired and motivated by solutions. And, most importantly, we need a sense that the things we’re going to do to solve this not only will help us avoid the negative consequences of runaway climate change but are actually going to build us a cleaner, safer, more prosperous world than the one we’re living in now, which isn’t working out so great for many people around the world.

This is an enormous vacuum that the broader sustainability community — scientists, politicians, engineers, humanists — has never adequately filled. We have predominantly focused on conveying dystopic visions of the world that we want to avoid, and there has been far less attention to describing and envisioning the world we want to live in. Dystopic narrative and discourse are incredibly prevalent — for example, it’s amazing how many teen books and movies today are set in a dystopic world. This is the culture that we are creating, and the expectations we are setting for kids growing up of what the future is going to be like.

What does it do to the soul of a nation or of the world when your view essentially is cynical: that these are problems that will not be solved, cannot be solved, and we’re going to end up in a Mad Max–type world? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like, “OK, so the ship is going to hit the iceberg, and we’re all going to die, so you might as well enjoy your last meal.” Seriously? That’s the solution that we have to our world problems? That’s absolutely bonkers, and yet that is too often the narrative that we are telling ourselves. To quote one of my favorite statements from Henry Ford, “Those who think they can, and those who think they can’t, are both right.”

This has really serious consequences because not only have we not provided a positive vision of the world we want, but we have left a cultural vacuum that the opponents are more than happy to fill. People like Rush Limbaugh enter into that vacuum and say, “Environmentalists want to take away your car, they want to take away your house, they want you to go back and live naked in the caves.” I don’t know anybody who proposes that, and yet the climate denialists get away with that narrative because we have not provided a compelling vision of the world that we want to live in and how we get there. People are hungry for that. And when we do tell those kinds of stories, they are almost always about the superhero individual who invents the thing that changes all of society — the white knight coming in to save everybody. That’s not what reality is, and that’s not how we’re going to get where we need to go. There is no white knight. There’s no one person that’s going to solve our problems with a magic wand. This is about people across the world deciding to make the change in their own domain, in their own lives, among their own social networks, and that rippling through all of our interconnected networks to ultimately become a tsunami of change that literally constructs the world we want. Nobody is telling that story, and it’s a huge missing piece.

AF What are the most significant opportunities for philanthropy in this area?

AL First, a caveat. Each artist has to do what makes sense to them. I am afraid of efforts to use art to communicate a preset, predigested concept or message. I think that gets you into all kinds of trouble. It is inherent with the arts that you don’t know what you’re going to get out of an artistic process. Sometimes funders are going to get a home run, and sometimes it’s going to fizzle; that is just an intrinsic factor of the arts.

Funders should not try to micromanage and direct the art itself. If funders say, “Here’s the goal, here is what we are going to invest in,” they can direct people’s creative juices in ways that are much more likely to lead to something powerful. Just by offering an RFP on climate change, for instance, you’ve already changed the landscape. There will be artists who now take this issue on that wouldn’t have done so before because even if they cared about it, there was just no way that they could afford it or it wasn’t on their radar as something to make art about. So funders can help shape the evolution of our culture.

A good example of effective, nonintrusive funder action from another field is the XPRIZE. It did not tell anybody what to do, it just said, “We will give $10 million to the first team that can fly a spacecraft into space, land it back safely on the ground, and do it again within two weeks. We’re not telling you what technology to use, we’re not telling you who to work with, we’re not telling you anything about how to do it, we’re just saying here is the goal, now be creative, go figure it out and go do it.”

Where there are limited resources, you’ve got to be strategic and make hard choices about what to invest in. We cannot just let a thousand flowers bloom and hope that some of them pay off and maybe the world will be OK. And just as importantly, you have to have a way of knowing whether the investment is actually having the effect that you set out to have. It is not like selling widgets, where you have a very clear metric, but it doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want and say, “It’s art, so therefore it’s all good.” It’s not all good, especially if your goal is to engage a wider society around addressing a critical issue like climate.

To enable effective change, there must be greater coordination within foundations so that arts programs are talking to the environmental, social justice, and other programs. But even more importantly, it is critical that funders work together in a strategic way to learn from one another, coordinate wherever possible, and synergize and scale what works. If somebody finds something that really works, the rest of the community should know and should be ready to help each other scale it. For example, if somebody funds a rapper who figures out a way to translate climate change effectively but isn’t very well known and doesn’t have the exposure that they ought to have, then a funder can say, “OK, what can we do to get this out as widely as possible to the audience that will engage with and respond to it?” Foundations need to ask, “How do we collectively, without competing, without branding, without being concerned who gets the credit, scale up the successes, so they have the biggest effect possible?” As Harry Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

AF Beyond supporting artistic creation itself, are there other things that funders can do to amplify the impact of artistic work on climate change and sustainability issues?

AL In The Day after Tomorrow, the filmmakers made the movie that they wanted to make. They weren’t activists. But the advocacy community saw that movie was coming out and started to organize around it. MoveOn and other organizations used the premiere to go out and engage people. When people left the theaters, there were volunteers there greeting them with more information about climate change and petitions to sign; that is, the nuts and bolts of advocacy work.

An art exhibit or performance can be an organizing moment, but too often the art is just left on its own. Olafur Eliasson’s work at COP21 in Paris is a good example. He brought in several very large pieces of Greenland ice from a melting glacier and set them in a public square in Paris as an art exhibit. People could come through and touch it, lick it, take pictures of it, watch it. And, of course, over the course of COP21, it was melting away, which was the key message he was trying to communicate. And because it was glacier ice, it was making these incredible, beautiful forms as it melted — the edges, the shapes, the deep-blue color and the way the light interacted. It was a beautiful aesthetic object as well as a highly meaningful one.

Yet when I visited, there was not much going on around it to help people connect to the issue of climate change. There was nobody leading tours, nobody with a stand nearby saying, “Here is more information about what’s going on with melting ice.” There was nothing that put it into its proper context, and so most people just took selfies, mugged with it and chipped at it, and it was pretty clear they didn’t really understand what they were interacting with. Of course, any public art is going to be interpreted and utilized in multiple, unpredictable ways, but working with advocacy groups or others can help ensure that as many people as possible get the fundamental message intended to be conveyed. That is a huge opportunity that doesn’t happen often enough, and a place where funders could support amplifying actions.