Many island nations of the Caribbean and coastal regions of the Eastern U.S. are particularly threatened by damaging climate change impacts like sea level rise, increased storm surges, and loss of local aquatic ecosystems. Many adaptation measures could be taken to spare life and property in these threatened areas, but climate change skepticism and a poor understanding of the science remain a major barrier to meaningful action. In order to address this gap in understanding my partner, hydrologist Zion Klos, and I are embarking on a year-long sailing expedition, and art and science collaboration called Climate Odyssey.
Upon our departure in late June, we’ll begin photographing climate change impacts and adaptation strategies, interviewing stakeholders, politicians, scientists and artists, and visiting classrooms and community groups while we sail our 34’ catamaran along our route. I’ll compile the images and information we gather into an interactive map on our website, creating an accessible resource built to communicate the urgency of coastal climate change adaptation and the science behind the impacts. Each image added to the map will be linked to relevant blog entries and other adaptation resources, making the map both a piece of art and an engaging tool for sharing the science of climate change. At the end of our journey I will make printed versions of the digital map into an edition of artists’ books to be shared in libraries, galleries, and classrooms in those same communities we visited. Our ultimate goal is for Climate Odyssey resources to be seen by those who, due to either apathy or acceptance of a skeptical narrative, are disengaged from efforts to adapt to climate change.
We are aware of several challenges posed by this undertaking, but our diverse and complimentary skills in art, science, and communication make us uniquely prepared to collaborate and use art as a tool for science communication. One obstacle is that climate change science is both complex and highly politicized in this country. There will be times when we need to address a person who is skeptical of climate change science, and Zion’s ability to address these often detailed questions frees me up to focus on the artistic portion of the project.
The next challenge addresses a central question investigated by Artists and Climate Change: can art really create emotions that inspire people to think in new ways, in this case to question a skeptical and politicized narrative? Fortunately for us, Zion’s research spans both the physical science of how climate change will affect the future of natural resources, and the social science of how to best communicate climate change impacts and the threats they pose. Research into the psychology of climate change communication shows that sharing projected local impacts rather than global ones, in addition to a focus on local adaptation rather than global mitigation of climate change, are two ways to better engage these audiences. We believe that only after people connect with the issue emotionally, understand the science globally, and feel the need to adapt locally, can a discussion begin about what global greenhouse gas mitigation can look like within these communities and the world they share. We’re also aware that psychologists and advertisers alike have known for decades that targeting emotions is an effective way to promote a change in behavior. We aim to use the emotional response elicited by a piece of art, in combination with these two strategies above, to connect with those who remain uncompelled by cognitive scientific arguments for climate change adaptation. These resources are then targeted toward a viewer who may not respond to a more cognitive argument for adaptation, such as a graph of projected impacts.
Though Climate Odyssey is the most science-based project I’ve undertaken, I’ve always been interested in the natural world. I grew up playing in green belts tucked away in the suburbs of Denver, observing nature wherever I could find it. My work today is place-based and is always tied in some way to observing the intersection of the natural and built environment, much like those suburban oases I sought as a child. A recent example of my place-based work is my 2014 series of illuminated sculptures called Moscow Light Houses. I gathered close-up photos of natural processes occurring on artificial objects over many months of walks through town. I then applied the images, often showing weathered paint or vegetation encroaching on buildings, to wooden frames shaped like the classic turn-of-the-century American houses that characterize the town. By documenting the unique quality of exposure resulting from a century of climate in the Northwest, and the historical architecture of Moscow, I encouraged viewers to reconsider their familiar hometown through my lens showing the overlap of the local natural and built environments.
The dynamic nature of a sailing expedition poses a unique challenge to my practice of carefully observing a place over a length of time. I’m eager to use the transient nature of our next year to expand my process: rather than reframing a single place I aim to reframe the issue of coastal adaptation for those who are disengaged. Through photographs and interviews, I will zoom out and observe the impacts that a changing climate, once considered both static and exempt from human influence, is now having on our built environments on the coast. As our balanced and familiar atmosphere of the 19th and 20th century is supplanted by a warming and unpredictable one, we find ourselves unintentionally in control of the planet’s thermostat due to our dependence on fossil fuels. Climate change is the ultimate intersection between the natural and built environment because of our culpability and its threat to our existence.
After months of work fundraising and repairing our boat, the excitement is building as our date of departure approaches. I’m eager to try my hand at reframing an issue instead of a place, and at incorporating science into a piece of art in a way that’s useful to the public.
Lucy Holtsnider is an environmental artist working in book arts, printmaking, photography, and sculpture to comment on areas of overlap between natural and built environments. Her work is place-based and uses patterns and textures to give historical and regional context to the interactions between human constructions and natural phenomena. In addition to her fine art resume, Lucy has also taught art in a variety of settings, from summer camp to a classroom in Japan to community art workshops.