A Call from Science to the Arts

By Wendy Foden

When giving lectures on climate change impacts, I often begin by asking the audience if they have watched the movie, The Day after Tomorrow, a fictional action movie in which New York freezes overnight due to climate change. Usually at least half the audience has watched it, compared to just a few who have seen An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s factual account of climate change. When later in the lecture I cover some of the risks of polar ice melt, I find people more interested in engaging with the science and curious about the possible impacts of the changes.

Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth

In my previous blog post I wrote about Kunzes, a school teacher from the arid, mountainous region of Ladakh in Northern India. Climatic changes in the region have meant that she and her village are now unable to grow three of their seven traditional crops. When I asked if the village had thought about introducing new crops, I was met with an uncomfortable silence from Kunzes. Contemplating the challenge that her village faces in changing centuries-old farming practices, I realised that each of us faces similar mental leaps in preparing for an unknown and unprecedented future.

Risk is generally measured as the perceived severity of a threat, multiplied by the perceived likelihood that it will occur. In trying to understand why risk perception is so subjective and differs markedly from person to person, psychologists have long theorised about how we process the information leading to these perceptions.  Not surprisingly, our individual cognitive, socio-cultural, emotional, individual and subconscious tendencies are all at play. Most interesting, I find, is that when processing risk-related information, our brains take various shortcuts (called heuristics) to help us speed up our judgments. These include using the nature, severity and frequency of past events to judge the risks of such events in the future.  If events haven’t occurred previously, our brains seek parallels with similar events, but where no similar events are known, risk perception is based on how easily we can imagine them.

These shortcuts in risk perception can lead to serious biases. For example, the risk of a shark attack is often over-estimated because although they’re exceptionally rare, we’ve seen movies like Jaws, providing us with a quickly available reference to the horror of such an attack and hence an elevated perception of risk. Climate change, on the other hand, seems to elicit a lower-than-expected level of risk perception. It’s often perceived as a slow and gentle rise in average temperatures, is full of uncertainty, and some media outlets dispute it. Further, since climate change of the nature and rate projected has not occurred in living memory or recorded history, we have no brain shortcuts to help us to determine the severity and likelihood of the risk it brings to us. Without these, our cognitive processing relies on finding events to which we can compare predictions, and on our ability to imagine a future under climate change.

The climatic changes and conditions ahead will be unprecedented and novel. How do we help people build mind-bridges to these?  At this point, science is facing a hurdle, but the creative arts are beginning to shine.  Books, movies, music, visual arts and dance transport us into imagined and fantastical realms, including into any number of realities. We choose beautiful and happy realities; challenging and scary realities; past, present or future realities or even all three. In these we find characters to whom we relate going through various experiences – trials, joys and decisions – and we join them. While we’re watching or reading, the imagined world becomes our reality. As a result, we are able to strategize on how to battle aliens, win a princess’ heart and survive in the wilderness. So why not on dealing with a changing climate?

The creative arts can work to create ‘experiences’ of a climatically changed future. In presenting undisguised fiction, they are free to elaborate on and fill in the gaps between facts, thereby creating imaginary worlds in which the audience is led to explore scenarios of change and how these might impact both the trajectories and details of our lives.  Much like The Day After Tomorrow, we know these plots are imaginary and inaccurate, but they provide valuable reference points for our perceptions of the scientific facts that are emerging.

I salute and am very much enjoying the growing genre of ‘Cli-Fi’ fiction writing, where we meet characters experiencing, coping with and combating climate change. For example in Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, we read about a small-town mom whose discovery of millions of migrating butterflies that have gone astray due to climate change brings dramatic changes to her life and her community. In SeaBEAN, Sarah Holding’s highly acclaimed book for 8-12 year-olds, Alice and her friends time-travel to 2090 and upon seeing the disasters that global warming has wrought, must head back in time to stop the world deteriorating to what they’ve seen.  Although not ostensibly about climate change, even the recent Hollywood movie Interstellar, introduces viewers to experiences of large-scale crop failure, a likely climate change impact in some regions.

Logic and facts alone seem unable to help us adequately comprehend the risks we face from global climate change.  Science needs the arts. By helping us to imagine scenarios of climate change, inaccurate as they may be, the arts provide our brains with reference points that make ignoring the threat altogether unlikely and both engaging with factual information and assessing climate change risks much easier. I call on the arts community to explore the rich opportunities a climatically changed world provides for stimulating our imaginations, and to recognize the vital role they can play in preparing us for the future.