Not My Leader

What kind of “leader” would – on the very same day that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its most dire climate assessment to date – obfuscate (once again) his government’s purchase of a controversial oil pipeline expansion as a way to generate revenue to “achieve its long-term climate objectives?”

What kind of “leader” would – the day after the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report paints the starkest picture yet of the accelerating danger caused by human use of coal, oil and gas – urge OPEC and its allies to increase oil production?

What kind of “leader” would – in the same week that the IPCC made it crystal clear that climate change is now “affecting every inhabited region across the globe” – announce a nearly $4 billion investment in coal?

What kind of “leader” would – a week after the IPCC’s ominous report – approve a new gas drilling project beneath a national park?

In the context of the climate emergency, none of these politicians deserves the title “leader.” Leaders are supposed to lead. But these so-called “leaders” are nothing more than handmaidens beholden to the fossil fuel industry.

Let’s throw out the faux honorifics and refer to these politicians as nothing more than “elected officials,” a description that underscores the temporary nature of their present jobs. Because they could quickly become un-elected in the next election cycle when we, the voters – especially young voters – replace them with people who have the courage to speak to truth, who are not tethered to the fossil fuel industry. People whose words and actions embody the possibility of near-term social collapse.

I am full of rage this week. Rage at the shameful and tone-deaf responses of our elected officials to the IPCC’s urgent call for “rapid and unprecedented societal transformation.” Rage at “our apparent inability to stop ourselves from destroying our only habitat.” Rage at our collective suicide, according to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek:

Rage at the indifference – there’s no other word for it – of close friends, family, and neighbors who carry on with their fossil fueled, fast fashion, frequent flyer lifestyles as if July 2021 was not the hottest. month. ever. recorded. in. human. history.

“The worst is yet to come,” according to the IPCC, “affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own.” The looming collapse of the Gulf Stream is one of the tipping points that worries me most: scientists admit that it “must not be allowed to happen.” It would have catastrophic consequences for all species across the globe, not just for humans.

In a leaked version of the draft IPCC report earlier this year, one sentence jumped out of the nearly 4,000 pages and went viral: “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems; humans cannot.”

How could anyone be indifferent to that?

A recent Instagram post by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson suggests why:

It’s fair to say that [the science is] often very disembodied. It is knowledge that doesn’t have a physical sort of storage; there’s no memory of it in our bodies.

Olafur Eliasson

Embodiment: is this the secret sauce that’s been missing in the artistic community’s response to the climate crisis to date?

Over the coming months, I’d like to explore this concept of embodiment for future posts, especially as it relates to the energy transition. I welcome comments from any artists, architects and/or scribes (in the space below) describing how they are, in Eliasson’s words, bringing “an experiential narrative” to their artistic interpretations of the energy transition. I will contact each of you separately and hopefully will feature your work in future posts in the Renewable Energy series of Artists and Climate Change.

Artists, it’s time to lead. Energy is at the heart of the climate emergency, and a transition away from fossil fuels must be at the heart of its solution. As Ursula Le Guin observed, “Resistance and change often begin in art.”

For those who have not had time to read the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report 2021, Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis, here’s a two-minute video summary:

(Top image: Partial cover of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis, 2021.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

3 thoughts on “Not My Leader

  1. Brava, Joan! I’m full of rage too at our elected leaders who only care about maintaining power at all costs. We need to vote them out of office and elect others, preferably women who care more for their children and grandchildren than anything else.

  2. Thank you Joan and well said. I feel your anger. It is the same anger that many progressive thinkers in Australia have felt for the last 8 years.

    I have moved on from rage with an indifferent society as I’ve come to realize that we can’t expect our paleolithic psychology to be capable of dealing with such huge and systemic problems. This is where art comes in. Leaders are another matter; we should expect … umm … leadership from them.

    And thank you for reminding me of Eliason’s “embodiment”. It’s the word I’ve been looking for. My research is into how data visualisations can be used to connect our lived experience to planetary scale physical and social processes and systems. The background to the project is documented here : and is inspired by the idea of the planetary shared breath. The work is getting close to a public release.

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