Newport Folk Festival 2016

Music and Hope in a Warming World

Can music help make a safer climate?

As a musician I should say yes. Folk music has always engaged in social issues, Rap is a language of self-empowerment for marginalized youth, and Reggae speaks of freedom …

Except there isn’t much music speaking to climate change.

While other art forms address climate change, music is conspicuous by its relative silence. But I think it ought to. As Joan Sullivan writes on this blog, “protest music is the missing ingredient to breathe new life and a sense of urgency into the global climate change conversation.”

In the beginning of 2016, we developed Music for a Warming World – a 75-minute concert using music and projected visuals and video, telling the story of our warming planet.

Over the years I’ve recorded a few “environmental” songs and they were often a part of our gigs, but I always felt that this wonderful creative medium could do much more to address climate change. But how could we do it without being trite or preachy? Here is what we did.

First, we figured we needed to tell a story. We knew it couldn’t be just a scary story. That doesn’t work, as lots of recent research has shown. So we thought long and hard and came up with this structure: starting with the coming Storm (sobering news from science), experiencing Loss (eco-mourning), focusing on positive Change (technology & politics) and finally celebrating Hope (living well in a challenging world). It sounds straightforward now, but it took several months and a couple of trial runs before we found something we were happy with.

We decided not to try to “convert” climate change deniers and sceptics. Music is not really the appropriate medium for presenting carefully constructed rational arguments. Music is good at telling stories and is wonderful for allowing people to feel the impacts of those stories. We would just tell an honest story and let people engage with it in their own way; art creates space for reflection! Using original music and imagery (including minimal text), we speak honestly about the perilous state of planetary warming without trying to prove anything (though all our key facts are from peer reviewed sources).  That’s the rather challenging “state of the planet” bit of the story. But what does it mean for us?

Simon and Will smiling

It means loss. We have and will continue to lose much that we value to climate changes; coastlines, species, home and ways of life, mighty glaciers, probably the Great Barrier Reef. This is where we must acknowledge a role for mourning, for processing the many rapid changes happening before our eyes.

That, by no means, is the end of the story. Maybe we can change things? There is in fact a hell of a lot of positive change happening that we all need to see, to feel, to experience. One significant story is the need to leave coal (and other fossil fuels) in the ground. We need to stop digging it up because if we do, we will burn it, and if we burn all current known reserves, the planet will warm 3-4oC. No climate scientist I know (and I do know a number) wants to live in that world. So I wrote a song called “Leave them in the Ground.” It is not yet a global hit, but hey, there is still time! Though releasing it first might help!

What about the revolution in renewable energy that no one predicted? We thought we should tell that story as well. It seems to cheer people up a fair bit.

Then there was the troublesome issue of politics. Now, I understand the frustration of politics (having taught it at a university for a number of years), but we needed to include it in our story. Then along came Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, and her linking of the unfinished business of social justice, climate change and capitalism. So to cut a long story short, I wrote a new song called … “This Changes Everything; It’s Changing our World.” It seemed to catch the mood I was in. And it is a reggae type thing, so you can dance to it, if you want to.

But how should this story finish? That got us pondering deeply about our beautiful and troubled world. We realised how simple it really is. Wellbeing depends on where our emotional attention is. We think we can be encouraged by an underestimated fact about the future; it is not here yet.

Music for a Warming World

The interesting thing about the future is that it rarely turns out as we expected. Predictions are difficult. Climate modelling is pretty accurate these days, but what is far less certain is how we, the human community, will respond to climate change. I wasn’t expecting the Paris Agreement to be signed. But it was. Who knows what could happen if there is a democratic majority in the US Senate, under a Clinton presidency? There is as much opportunity for optimism as there is for pessimism. We have a choice in how we want to live. That led to a new song called “Imagine the World,” not an excuse for pollyanish visions, but for much more grounded and positive understanding of social change.

And what about simply living well? In the midst of trying to save the world, we reminded ourselves that we also want to have a good time. We decided that Music for a Warming World would be a great gig, regardless of the topic, and that we would have fun playing and sharing our music and interacting with the audience (good art is participatory, I think).

In the twenty or so shows we have performed this year, people have told us that they feel much more positive and committed to change by the end of the show. We think that comes from the process we go through, a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and combining music and powerful imagery to allow emotional reflection and engagement. The result is more than the sum of its parts. The band, the music, the rich and evocative visuals and the audience create a temporary community, one focused on music, our climate challenge and collective hope.

Maybe music can help make a safer climate.


Simon Kerr is a New Zealand songwriter, guitarist and thinker based in Melbourne, Australia. In 2016, he and his partner Christine Parker, developed a unique multimedia concert telling the story of climate change. A prolific songwriter, Simon has released three studio albums and performed around New Zealand and Australia. A former academic, he has worked professionally in Research Management at the University of Melbourne for some years and is now a climate activist and musician.

13 thoughts on “Music and Hope in a Warming World

  1. Great post and thank you for the research article. I wrote my thesis on the Role of Art in the Global Climate Change Movement and dove into this type of research (on fear appeals and how imagery/icons affect audiences).
    I’m gearing up to start a new nonprofit specifically focused on the intersection of art and environment as a means to deepen dialogue, increase local environmental stewardship, and engage individual people in action (small, local steps–with larger ones for the few that seek that interaction). I’ve just finished my masters in nonprofit arts administration and have all of the tools I need to get this idea off the ground now.
    You’ll be hearing more from me!
    Keep up the great work!

  2. Hi Manda, thank you for your comment. I would love to read your thesis. Would you be willing to share it? And good luck with your non-profit. It sounds like a great idea!

  3. Hi Thanks for your email. I run a small festival that takes place in Wales and explores positive responses to our future through low carbon technologies, social justice and the arts. I am wondering where you guys are based and if you might be interested in coming to perform Music For a Warming World at next years festival in June? George George Bell Co-director +44 (0)7912569698 / @georgebell50 ===============================

    ‘A weekend exploring positive responses to our future through low carbon technology, social justice and the arts’

    • Hi George, I’m Simon’s partner and manager of the show! Your small is beautiful festival looks wonderful – but alas you are in Wales and we are in Melbourne, Australia. So it would not be very low carbon for us to make a special trip! We’d love to come some time if we are ever doing a number of things in the UK and can justify the carbon! Best to you!

    • Hi George, thanks for your interest in Music for a Warming World. Your festival sounds and looks fascinating. I had a look at your web site and we would love to participate in the festival at some point. But we live in Australia and try to limit our air travel as much as is feasible. But if we do find ourselves (including our band) heading north at some point we will most definitely be in contact. Keep up the great work. Simon

  4. I think all art can make great changes, promoting awareness and caring. That should be the ultimate goal of any form of expression. A beautiful piece of music moves the soul, and what better way to enhance this than to accompany it with a moving fact or issue that faces the world. As an artist I wish that paintings could sometimes shout as loudly as music.

    A fantastic initiative.

    • Thanks for mentioning our show in your blog. I agree that guilt and blame do not work to motivate most of us. Have you read Alain de Button’s book ‘Religion for Atheists’? He says something similar to your point that art, while having an aesthetic function, can also do more than just aesthetics. It can communicate meaning or values, something that art tends to be reluctant to do these days. I thought de Botton’s argument was really interesting in light of the need for artists to speak more directly (and wisely) to the big issues of the day.

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