Nature and Biodiversity

Combining art and science to tackle climate change

Kyle Plantz
Journalist, The Thomson Reuters Foundation
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Nature and Biodiversity?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Future of the Environment is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Future of the Environment

When Robert Davies, a physicist at Utah State University, started giving lectures on climate change in 2007, he found people’s eyes glazing over.

“What I was finding was that I was able to put together a good presentation and audiences were able to understand the information on an intellectual level, but they just weren’t connecting to it,” he said. “It didn’t seem real to them.”

How could he make the messages stick? He remembered that chamber music helped “unblock” his mind and help him think more creatively. So he approached the university’s ensemble in residence, the Fry Street Quartet, with an idea to combine music and science in a performance piece.

The members agreed and eventually added visual artists to their team as well. In 2012, The Crossroads Project made its premiere and since then the ensemble has been performing around the world, including in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil.

Their performances include quartet music that varies from almost cheerful to a haunting melody, a presentation by Davies that incorporates photographs and paintings as he discusses “the impact of society’s unsustainable systems”, and time for the audience to meditate on the “crossroads” society has reached.

“The whole point is to lay the information out there in a visceral way to the audience, the scale of the impact of the risks that we are putting on the environment, and hope that it moves them toward a meaningful response,” said Davies, co-founder of The Crossroads Project.

“We don’t want the audience to leave in despair and disengaged from the work,” he said. “We want them to leave disturbed and motivated at the same time.”

Increasingly, as scientist try to find ways to engage people to act on climate change, they are mixing science and art, looking for a combination that educates, entertains and brings about action.

The right balance can be difficult to achieve, Davies admits, but ultimately science and art work well together, he believes.

“It’s really science coopting art in service of effective communication,” he said. “That artistic sensibility of letting (an audience) interpret what you are doing is completely counter to scientific sensibility, yet in that sense these two disciplines are highly complimentary to each other and each one fills in what the other lacks to communicate literally and viscerally.”

‘Humanising’ science

Theatre groups also are breaking from convention to try to find ways to educate as well as entertain on climate change issues.

In the show “2071”, Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London, uses a monologue about humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels to make climate change more engaging.

During the highly personal performance, he sits in a chair on stage for 75 minutes, and talks about his career and the future of climate change, with video images appearing behind him to support his arguments.

The title of the show comes from the fact that his granddaughter will be his current age in 2071 and he wants her to inherit an inhabitable planet.

“It is a subject of huge importance, but which presents certain challenges to a conventional theatrical approach,” said Duncan Macmillan, the writer of “2071”, which finished its run at the Royal Court Theatre in London in January.

“It is an issue of enormous complexity and requires the communication of a lot of data, something compelling drama resists.”

While some could argue that Rapley’s monologue is essentially another climate change lecture, Macmillan said his “presence gives the performance credibility and authority, and his personal experiences help humanise the science.”

“We felt it was vital to present the text in an objective, emotionally neutral tone,” he said. “… We wanted to inform and to empower, not lecture or argue.”

Breaking down complexity

Climate change is also being communicated via dance, often with poetry, pictures, video or songs as accompaniment. “Cut the Sky”, put on by the Australian dance company Marrugekuat the Perth International Arts Festival in February, combined all of those to talk about the effects of global warming on indigenous populations around the world.

Based on the stories of people in the Kimberley region in Australia and on aboriginal land rights history, “Cut the Sky” looks at the past, present, and future of climate change in five acts, using poems, songs, multimedia, and contemporary dance.

“As artists, we have to find access points to deal with the complexity and magnitude of climate change,” said Rachel Swain, co-artistic director of Marrugeku. “We don’t quite know what’s going to happen and instead of coming at it logically, the audience can emotionally and physically come to grips with the concept of climate change instead.”

“They (audience members) don’t know what to think about it sometimes, especially if it’s an overwhelming concept,” she said. “They get knocked over the head with statistics and debates about the actual facts of it (climate change). Art can provide a framework for people to start to get their heads around it and think about their own implications on the problem.”

No matter the medium, Davies thinks well-presented art, combined with science, can work on both levels.

The arts, she said can “force people to come face to face with these issues of climate change in a shared experience with other people in the audience and in a space that forces them to think about it, and ultimately decide what they want to do with this information,” he said. “It can really connect to people’s lives.”

This article is published in collaboration with The Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Kyle Plantz is an intern reporting on climate change issues for the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Image: Splinters of ice peel off from one of the sides of the Perito Moreno glacier. REUTERS/Andres Forza.  

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityIndustries in DepthClimate Action
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Critical minerals demand has doubled in the past five years – here are some solutions to the supply crunch

Emma Charlton

May 16, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum