Starting Out

Outside it’s getting windy – really windy. The tailend of Hurricane Ophelia is giving my part of Devon a casual lashing en passant. All of a sudden, my quiet hilltop road has grown noisy with the deep thrumming bass of tropical air giving everything a good shake. There’s so much movement, too: the hopping telephone wires, the trees frantically waving their branches about, and the gulls and crows delighting in some serious wind surfing.

How is it that tailends of hurricanes can reach us here in Devon? How is it that Ireland is having to batten down the hatches in the face of an oncoming tropical storm? Is this normal? Yes of course, say the scientists, it’s normal, freak weather events like these have, paradoxically, been happening for ever. But is it really normal? Perhaps not, say the scientists, our climate is changing, and what was a freak weather occurence may well become -or even already be- the new norm. How to reconcile those two responses?

Scientists investigating the atmospheric wonder that is the weather and its long-term expression, climate, have a really difficult job. Investigating the mind-boggling and chaotic intricacies of our planet’s atmosphere and how it interacts with the land and the oceans is the realm of mathematicians, physicists, geographers, explorers, mariners and an army of weather enthusiasts. Their meticulous approach to the field produces lifetimes of daily temperature measurements in suburban back gardens, adventurous lives in far-flung places, studious lives spent examining datasets of all kinds to tease out the underlying patterns of change in a fundamentally chaotic system that spans the globe. Above all, this tribe of scientific investigators is obsessed with accuracy and specificity, and profoundly indisposed towards any sloppy, undocumented, unverified, or worse, politically motivated approach to the field they love with a deep and abiding passion. And they have uncovered a most urgent problem facing our species: our way of life, with its fossil-fuel addiction, is changing the planet fundamentally and threatening our very survival.

Climate scientists have been banging on about this problem for a long time now – long enough for their predictions of 20 years’ ago to be coming true now. Climate change is no longer a problem for the future: it’s with us now. So why is the message still not coming through? Why have politicians and decision-makers at all levels of public administration across the globe not grasped that action on this is urgent? How is it we are not all voting persistently for governments that promise to make action on climate change a priority? Why are the media across the board still giving airspace and column inches to climate change deniers?

I am an artist with a foot in two art disciplines – music and visual art. Together with my husband, Peter Stott, who leads our Climate Stories project, and Prof Paul Hardaker of the Institute of Physics, I set up a cross-disciplinary project called WAM – Weather Art and Music. We wanted to find new ways of talking about weather and climate change. We wanted to find ways that would open a channel of communication between communities. Nothing top-down, nothing patronising, nothing that suggests that scientists know best. We wanted to find ways of engaging climate scientists in this dialogue, and engage them in finding new ways of communicating the science they love.

Climate scientists have knowledge we all need right now. Everyone needs to know what they are finding out. We need this knowledge because we will all need to take decisions based on that knowledge – now and in the near future. But transmitting this knowledge to people not part of the climate science community is a really knotty problem. By being tasked with transmitting their knowledge to the wider public climate scientists are being asked to do something they never trained for. Learning to write computer code and build a climate model, or studying the mathematics needed to understand the atmosphere does not equip you to talk to a politician, a businessman, a plumber, a care assistant, an artist and explain to them why it is they should care about what’s happening. How can you convey the science you love in ways that reach across multiple divides?

Climate Stories is an attempt to answer that question. We will try and find a way to open new expressive pathways for our climate scientists. They will take on a task that will transform them and their perception of their field. They will learn to talk about their field in a different language – a language no less disciplined and precise than their native scientific language and requiring commitment and a lot of thought, but a language that reaches people across the board effortlessly, because it creates a space for both communicator and listener to engage on equal terms and find common ground. That language is art.

Pierrette Thomet, WAM Director and Climate Stories Arts Co-ordinator

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