Another Tool to Fight Climate Change: Art


In 1970, the artist Robert Rauschenberg created a poster for the first Earth Day, a bold image of a bald eagle superimposed atop photos of environmental destruction—a simple collage, and yet a powerful, visceral call to action. Art, as Rauschenberg knew, has the power to move people, often in ways that science, law or politics cannot.

While art and the environment have long been intertwined, the connection between our communities today is not as visible as it could, or should be. And when it comes to battling today’s most pressing environmental issue--climate change--we need to use every tool at our disposal, to have every community using its own strengths to push solutions. Visual artists have a critical role to play in this battle. Last week, NRDC President Frances Beinecke sat down with artist Maya Lin, as part of the Marfa Dialogues New York, to talk about connecting art and climate.

Both Frances, who joined NRDC as an intern in 1973, and Maya, who made her name in the art world while still a college undergraduate with her design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, came to their careers as passionate lovers of nature; and both women, advocate and artist alike, are surprisingly similar in their informed, data-driven approach to their work.

Lin’s latest work, What is Missing?—which will be her last memorial— is an exploration of extinction and habitat destruction, through videos, personal stories, an interactive map and multiple art installations. The project, still in progress, is exhaustively researched and science-based, yet by using images, sound, and interaction, Lin makes a vast and diffuse problem seem intimate and personal.

"Unchopping a Tree" from Maya Lin’s What is Missing? Image courtesy of the artist.

The artist’s ability to engage people, to evoke emotion, provoke dialogue, and inspire a vision of a better future, can be a critical tool in the climate fight. We at NRDC have a formidable army of scientists, lawyers and policy experts, as well as 1.4 million passionate and motivated supporters. But we sometimes fall short in creating dialogues with people whom we don’t normally reach—and that is perhaps what art does best. It’s a forum of expression that engages people, invites them in and encourages them to form their own conclusions. Art can spur people to action because it makes them feel it’s the right thing to do, not just because the experts say so. Artists can convey an emotional urgency in a way that environmentalists often can not.

When Rauschenberg created his Earth Day poster, environmental issues were discrete and immediate. Dying eagles. Rivers on fire. And environmental advocates tackled these problems one issue at a time, often with great success. Climate change is a different sort of beast, however, complex in effect and global in scale. It is a problem that we can solve, but not through legal briefs or policy blueprints alone, and not if we are working in isolation. Solving climate change is an all-hands-on-deck effort. If more of those hands come from the art world, with the talent and ability to reach out, engage and inspire, the faster we can start making changes to stabilize our climate and preserve the health of our planet for future generations.