Experts Discuss Role of Arts and Media in Climate Change at Pardee Conference

On October 18 and 19, 2010, the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, the Goethe-Institut Boston and the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities Essen (KWI) organized a symposium on Transatlantic Perceptions of Climate Change: The Role of the Arts and Media at at Boston University. The symposium addressed how the arts and the media influence the public perception of climate change on both sides of the Atlantic.

PANEL 1: Transatlantic Perceptions of Climate Change: The Role of the Arts and Media

Adil Najam, Andrew Revkin, Stefan Rahmstorf and Igor Vamos discuss transatlantic perception of climate change.

Held on Oct 18,Monday, evening, this session was moderated by Professor Adil Najam, Director of the Pardee Center.

Andrew Revkin, Senior Fellow at the Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, and blogwriter for the New York Times’ “Dot Earth, ” acknowledged the importance of climate information, but questioned whether the public would act even with perfect information. He said climate change strategies should target existing realities in public opinion, noting the need to focus on positive stories, such as energy technology, rather than negative gloom and doom narratives

Igor Vamos (alias Mike Bonanno), Associate Professor of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and member of the Yes Men, said climate change has become an umbrella topic for the environmental and social justice movements. On the basis of his experience impersonating business executives and international officers, he said he believed there is a “switch” to change public perception on climate change. The trick is to find it. He defined the challenge as transcending the limitations imposed by the cultures we have created.

Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam University citing the case of Germany and renewable energy, noted how different socioeconomic realities impact the public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. He emphasized that scientists all over the world speak the same language and are not affected by cultural backgrounds. He said Europe has a more positive attitude than the US about what can be done to change energy consumption patterns.

PANEL 2: Climate Change in the Press of Europe and the US

Bernd Sommer, Beth Daley, Ann-Kathrin Eckardt and Chris Russil discuss climate change and the media.

This Panel was held on Tuesday morning and moderated by Dr. Miquel Muñoz, Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of Longer-Range-Future, Boston University.

Prof. Chris Russill, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, noted the difficulties in bringing together scientists and journalists. He stressed the tremendous change in the media system today from what it was at the end of the 20th century, and the importance of the open source ethos in the backlash to climate science.

Dr. Bernd Sommer, Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI), said climate skepticism, while also existent, had not permeated mainstream politics in Europe.He described three types of climate skepticism, and showed that, contrary to skeptics claims, there is no majority of skeptics anywhere in the world, not among scientists neither among the public.

Ann-Kathrin Eckardt, Transatlantic Media Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, and editor at NEON, presented examples of climate change coverage in the United States and Europe. She said climate change was a difficult subject to cover because it was very abstract. She said the lack of directly linked victims or media-effective lawsuits meant there were no good stories from a journalist point of view. She also noted the disproportionate role of weather men and women in shaping public opinion on climate change, despite their lack of expertise on the topic.

Beth Daley, Environmental Reporter at the Boston Globe and contributor to the Green Blog, explained how the changes in the media have affected coverage for climate change over the last decade. She provided specific examples of all the work behind a good climate story, such as the Maine blueberry pickers, and noted the difficulties for good coverage as journalists are asked to work on tighter deadlines. She said on climate change journalists got ahead of the public.

PANEL 3: Art and Climate Change

Simon Faithfull, Marc Roberts and Heidi Quante discuss art and climate change.

This panel was held on Tuesday Morning, moderated by Victor Coelho, Associate Provost and Professor of Music, Boston University

Marc Roberts, Climate Blogtoonist, presented part of his work on cartoons to convey climate change issues. He compared the reaction of the public to climate change to that of the patients he helps in a psychiatric center: denial of reality.

Simon Faithfull, video artist, presented some of his work, which is part of the exhibition “To the Elements.” He said in many occasions climate art is unintended as such, but get reinterpreted in that way by the public. Drawing analogies with Dante, Faithfull noted artists’ fascination with the end of the world

Heidi Quante, EARTH project coordinator, underscored the role of art for conveying a message, but also for public mobilization. She said art transcends other forms of communication. She provided specific examples of “activist” art.


The symposium concluded with a lunch and concluding remarks by Prof. Najam. He noted the power of the image in framing public perception and policy. He stressed the conundrum faced by both scientists and journalists, whereby they are rewarded by being “objective”, but that precludes them from taking action. He said this is a social construct that needs overcoming. The way a doctor who is enthusiastic about eradicating disease is considered a good doctor, a climate change scientist who wants to avoid the negative consequences of climate change should not be labeled an “activist.” He concluded noting that the climate change dialog, to be effective, cannot be a Transatlantic affair, because climate change is a global issue.

Miquel Muñoz, Detlef Gericke-Schoenhagen, Annette Klein