Research examines the role of arts and humanities in responding to climate change


Yet to be titled (Swaling #1) 2017. Photo: Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-SkeapingThe 2015 COP21 Paris meeting shaped an international deal around climate change with an ambitious new target to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Research from the University of Sheffield and The Open University assesses the role and potential impact of the arts and humanities in relation to this target.

The study, led by Dr Renata Tyszczuk (University of Sheffield) and Professor Joe Smith (Open University), argues that integrating more culturally rooted contributions into the creation and deliberation of climate change scenarios would enrich processes of future-thinking. They have proposed the Culture and Climate Change Scenarios project as an example of arts and humanities engagement with a 1.5°C future.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) lean heavily on scenarios to explore future climate risks and responses. Yet, the arts and humanities are almost entirely absent in the scenarios work of the IPCC and the UNFCCC. Tyszczuk and Smith argue that acknowledging the historical and cultural roots of scenarios, and opening up the practices of climate research to more collaborative and interdisciplinary working, might support a more vibrant and imaginative sense of how humanity can be prepared for uncertain futures. The arts and humanities can help people to understand the many ways in which the world is being altered, not simply physically but also culturally and imaginatively.

Notes from ‘research in public’ conversation between Zoe Svendsen and Stephen PeakeThe presence of arts and humanities in deliberations of ambitious policy goals can help to set the conditions for a more engaging account of the hugely ambitious body of climate research collated by the IPCC. The arts and humanities can support a fuller understanding of what it means to craft shared futures with others through social transformations, or indeed to make and unmake futures that impact on all life on this planet.

The Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios project was launched at the COP21 Paris meeting with the ambition of bringing greater cultural depth to public conversations about future climate scenarios. The project appointed four artists to take part in an innovative arts-science ‘network’ which aimed to open up thinking on climate scenarios in wake of the Paris Agreement. The Scenarios project has challenged the tendency to view cultural responses as late-phase communications or public engagement aids that come after the science and policy are done. It started from the presumption that arts and humanities practices were not a response to, but rather an expression and component of climate research. The collaborations around scenarios between the artists and the climate research community have also served to recognise the diversity and contested nature of climate change research.

Renata Tyszczuk said “From the outset we established that the participants in the project: artists, scientists, social scientists, journalists, arts producers were all ‘climate researchers’. We wanted to recognise that we all had something distinctive to say, observe and contribute to the ongoing challenge of responses and responsibilities to climate change. We argue that, ‘climate change promises as dramatic a shift in society as it does in sea level rise.’ This implies a process of social transformation, upheaval and disruption that will change our relationships with the world. The arts and humanities can support how we go about these changes and what stories we tell.”

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In January 2018, Renata Tyszczuk presented the Culture and Climate Change Scenarios project at the 2018 Climate Change Seminar Series of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge (CSaP). Her talk was titled ‘Scenarios of Climate Change: Cultural responses to unsettled times and uncertain futures.’

You can read a news item on Renata’s CSaP talk and listen to a podcast here.