Science, Art, and Climate Change

Imagination, creativity, innovation, clear and logical thought processes: these behavioural traits are common to both artists and scientists. Scientists and artists alike are interested in the same basic breadth of topics, from politics to nature, from the cosmos to the human mind.

Both communities rely on the work of “the greats” who have come before them, each building on that knowledge and understanding to move the world forward in new directions, often exploring, in their own ways, the hitherto unexplored.

One can make a discovery without formal training; similarly, one can create a work of art without having any art training. And for most of us, artists and scientists both, learning about past discoveries, “standing on the shoulders of those who came before,” is largely how we shape the future of our world. Yes, both groups have always shaped, and still they shape, the future of our world.

Yet, professionally, artists and scientists speak in very different formats. Some artists write books, as do many scientists. Both artists and scientists often create illustrations, ranging from what seems realistic to being wildly abstract. In both cases the observers may question: Is the abstraction inscrutable or unintelligible? What stories are they telling? Do they speak the same language? If I’m not a scientist or an artist, can I interpret what their illustrations are saying?

Here are some scientific graphs that appeal to me, both because of their shapes and, I hope, their potential to solve climate change. I removed the numbers and left only the shapes. Do these shapes stimulate creative ideas for you?

These figures represent my story, about our likelihood of success in beating climate change. In this story, set in the year 2021, the world leaders finally realize that humans, must move away from using fossil fuels to power our world. Instead using energy sources that do not add pollutants to the atmosphere. These future leaders realize, finally, that they MUST reach zero emissions soon, but that it is a HUGE task.

Nonetheless, they ask the scientists to do some calculations: How much of our emissions would be left in the atmosphere if we reached zero emissions by a certain date? The scientists respond by saying that it is much too dangerous to leave the emissions where the level ends up when we reach zero emissions. So, they calculate how much to remove from the atmosphere in order to be safe. By creating “what-if” statements, like: What if we could do this in ten years, or 20 years, all the way up to 80 years before we reached zero emissions, what would that combination of reductions look like? To my scientific eye, these shapes are surprisingly attractive, as well as informative. But like all science and art, by themselves they are mysterious.

Does that really matter to the casual observer of art or science? Is the precise meaning in artistic representation important to more people than the artist? I think yes, but I am not an artist. At least, I would like to know what the artist wanted to tell me through his or her art.

Is the precise meaning important to the scientist? Like most scientists, I will give you a qualified answer: Yes, you need to know the precise meaning of the shape if you are also a scientist. If you are not a scientist, then it is important only to know the meaning and importance of the shape — the conclusions of the research. These shapes define the future of increasing and decreasing carbon dioxide if we stop using fossil fuels by 2030, 2040, 2050, 2060, 2070, or 2080, then actively remove atmospheric carbon dioxide to stabilize the climate. The next shapes describe what happens to the temperature as each of carbon dioxide shapes takes effect. And in this case, there are outer limits for the effects; fast and slow. What about sea level? For each of the temperature shapes, there is a resulting fast and slow sea level change.

Burning fossil fuels

Stop burning fossil fuels 2030, 2040, 2050, 2060, 2070, or 2080
Each stop date 2030, 2040, 2050, 2060, 2070, or 2080 causes a temperature change
As the world and the ocean warm, melting glacier ice, the sea level rises

Most people are very surprised to learn that the rate of cooling would be much slower than they expected. In fact, it could take between four times and eleven times as long to cool down as it had taken to warm up. That adds to the risk of damage. So, in this simple picture series, we can see that there is a “risk / benefit” calculation that the leaders must consider. The scientists would argue that the most critical consideration is to stop the continued use of fossil fuels because it leads to so much destruction.


How soon do we absolutely need to correct the problem before it gets so bad that we will not be able to fix it at all? The “easiest” would seem to be to take a nice, slow transition away from fossil fuels, and end up in 2100 at zero emissions. Conceptually, this looks obvious. So why has it not happened? We know how to correct the problem from an engineering and technical perspective. The holdup seems to be a combination of political and economic willful denial and spreading false information about the science and its conclusions.

If we go back to the shapes of change and ask for the most important date to reach zero emissions and begin to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide, the answer we get is 2050. So we have about 30 years to safely remove fossil fuels from the system.

Does art have a role to play in convincing the world leaders to act?

Art may be one key avenue to link evidence with beliefs and values.

But unless the art is available, the impact will be low. Recently the impressive rise of very young climate activists has raised general awareness. That combined with giant murals like this one celebrates the vision of a livable future through activism.

Photo by Andrew Gustar/Flicker.

Even the activists themselves feel that visual imagery is the best way to get the message across. They use home-made signs with inventive fonts, and wild imagery to draw attention to the urgency of treating global warming as an urgent and important problem to be solved.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov Via Unsplash

Young people all over the world are turning to political advocacy, and making pictures on their posters to emphasize their feelings. This is surely a form of performance art, installation art, in primitive but emotionally valid form? And sometimes, their words are forever captured in our minds and in visual form.

Photo courtesy Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Can students of art inspire others to pay attention to the future of the world in ways that society can ensure that our future not be a disaster? All artists strive to capture emotions and values, feelings that are familiar to us all but sometimes difficult to express. Song and poetry, movies and theater, painting and sculpture; surely there is no real limit to how art can express our cry for a safe and sustainable future for our world, our children, ourselves.

Photo courtesy Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Scientist (PhD marine sciences). Looking for solutions. Focus: ecology, evolution, global warming, energy transition, biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge.

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