Performance Art Worthy of 2020—the Hottest Year on Record (Wrapping Up the Hottest Decade on Record)

Watch these wax sculptures melt under the Florida sun to reveal important messages about climate change.

Credit: All images courtesy of the CLEO Institute

In true 2020 fashion, news of last year’s terribleness continues to pour in weeks after it ended. NASA announced today that 2020 was the hottest year on record, surpassing previous titleholder 2016 by less than a tenth of a degree. (Statistically, that makes it a tie—and analyses by other scientific organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put 2020 in the number two spot.) Either way, scientists are obviously worried—especially since, unlike 2016, 2020 brought the heat without the help of a mercury-boosting “super” El Niño.

“This [past] year has been a very striking example of what it’s like to live under some of the most severe effects of climate change that we’ve been predicting,” says Lesley Ott, a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a press release. Devastating and record-breaking climate events abounded: More than four million acres burned in California’s wildfires, the hurricane season produced 30 named storms, and the heat was so intense in the Sunshine State that a Florida panther melted at the Tampa zoo as horrified passersby looked on.

The latter event, thankfully, was by design—artist Bob Partington sculpted the likeness of the endangered big cat from biodegradable candle wax as part of a three-piece art installation to raise awareness about the extreme heat dangers of the climate crisis. Over the course of several days in late September, the statue slowly liquefied to reveal the message “More Heat, Less Wildlife.”

The CLEO Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit dedicated to climate change education and advocacy, dispatched wax sculptures to cities across the state for its Florida Climate Crisis Campaign. In addition to Tampa’s panther, a lifeguard house melted at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami to expose the message “More Heat, Less Beaches,” and a statue depicting a grandfather and grandchild eating ice cream in front of Orlando’s City Hall dripped away to warn “More Heat, Less Health.”

According to a 2019 study published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, between 1971 and 2000, Florida saw an average of 15 to 20 consecutive days each year with heat indexes above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate projections for the coming decade, however, expect that average to increase to 50 consecutive days of extreme heat. (Check here for heat projections for other U.S. areas.)

Florida’s densely populated, low-lying coastline makes it especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Natalia Ortiz, director of development for the CLEO Institute, says working on climate issues in a global hot spot is both frustrating and empowering. She says that having a deep understanding of the climate challenges the state faces—including sea level rise, increasingly powerful hurricanes, extreme heat, habitat loss, and climate gentrification—weighs heavily on her, especially when the issues become politicized. “If we didn’t have any solutions, I’d be devastated,” Ortiz says. “But the solutions are there.”

The solutions—which include swapping fossil fuels for renewable energy sources, pushing policies that address climate injustice, and preparing communities for the warming world—are, of course, more effective when the public is on board. The Florida Climate Crisis Campaign zooms in on the threat of extreme heat in particular. CLEO hopes that the trio of sculptures will motivate more Floridians to back stronger climate policies that support at-risk individuals and communities by forging a visceral connection to the dangers sweltering temperatures pose to wildlife, tourism, and people.

The organization teamed up with the VoLo Foundation, Miami-based ad agency Zubi, and Partington—a self-proclaimed mad scientist—to wax climatic. Partington’s CV includes creating the world’s largest treadmill for a Gatorade commercial and building an EV charging station that harnesses energy from passing cars. Sculpting massive meltable artworks may sound like a cinch in comparison, but Partington says the sculptures came with their own particular set of challenges.

One was getting the wax to melt at the right speed—too quick, and no one would see it happening; too slow, and the effect wouldn’t be dramatic enough. Landing on a wax recipe that produced the Goldilocksian three-to-five-day melt time took plenty of trial and error under the blistering Miami sun. Another hurdle was getting color to adhere to and melt along with the wax. After testing a variety of paints, Partington opted for wax-based stage makeup.

Ironically, the most significant challenge was the climate crisis itself. All three statues were unveiled in September—in the heart of hurricane country at the peak of a record-breaking hurricane season. The team studiously followed the forecast to identify stretches of reliably sunny days for the installations.

Though the campaign focuses on Florida, Ortiz says the formula for its messages is applicable everywhere the climate is changing, which is, well…everywhere. For example, she says, “More Wildfires, Less California.”

And for those in search of a mantra for 2021, how about “More Climate Action, Less Despair”?

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