Happy new year! I don’t know about you, but I’m optimistic about what this year will bring. According to the Media and Climate Change Observatory, 2021 witnessed the most climate change coverage ever! (h/t Mary Heglar in the outstanding “Hot Take” newsletter.)
And 2022 is already on its way to becoming another significant year for climate coverage and storytelling. Artists, journalists, advocates, writers, and other passionate folks are working hard to bring the public’s attention to the crisis. Here’s one example: The journal Triangulation is currently seeking writing inspired by the promise of sustainable energy. And here’s another: This month, I have an interview for you with two folks who are using art to inspire climate action.
Michele Roberts is an advocate with the Equitable and Just National Climate Forum, a group comprising some of the country’s largest and most influential climate organizations. The Forum just launched an art campaign to inspire people to think more deeply about racial, climate, and environmental justice. The artist behind the campaign is Quynh-Mai Nguyen, whose work seeks to inspire empathy and cultural awareness. The campaign brings Nguyen’s art to airports, kiosks, newspapers, and online news outlets.
For readers who have yet to discover the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, please tell us what it is and how it came about!
Michele: In 2017, a group of environmental justice and national environmental group advocates knew they had to take collective action to ensure environmental justice was included in federal policy debates. To address the environmental and social injustices many communities across the country face, this group of advocates got together and outlined a vision and agenda for an equitable and just climate future: the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform (EJNCP). This group of co-authors became the Equitable and Just National Climate Forum (EJNCF), whose mission is to implement the Platform to advance economic, racial, climate, and environmental justice to improve the public health and wellbeing of all communities while tackling the climate crisis. Forum participants include the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, Center for American Progress, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, Natural Resources Defense Council, Midwest Environmental Justice Network, and the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, along with dozens of other environmental justice and national environmental organizations (see full list here).
How does art play a role in EJNCP’s work?
Michele: While the EJNCP was founded as a bold national climate policy agenda, we are excited to embark on our journey to utilize different forms of expression like storytelling and visual art to distribute that agenda widely. These different forms of expression will allow us to share our priorities and the lives of communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis in a creative way that captures stories often missing in policy discourses. I have always been passionate about storytelling. I am the environmental justice producer of Pacifica 89.3 FM radio’s weekly “The On the Ground Show: Voices of Resistance”. The show elevates social justice activism in DC and across the country. Environmental justice issues and intersecting social justice issues are often a topic of discussion. Art is vital in allowing us to communicate with our constituents and share the on-the-ground stories of people doing the work.
What message are you hoping people take away from this work?
Michele: For far too long, low-income households and communities of color have borne the brunt of economic and environmental injustices. Lawmakers have the opportunity to help change that by passing a budget reconciliation bill with “Build Back Better” measures – investments to support working families and mitigate the impacts of climate change – intact, and by ensuring the benefits of those investments are directed where they are needed most by implementing the Justice40 Initiative. The artwork depicts a hopeful future with community members enjoying the benefits of a healthy, sustainable environment and economy powered by clean energy with the messages “Climate Justice for All” and “Build Back With Justice.” It’s time to ensure investments from legislation like the Build Back Better Act prioritize environmental justice communities. The Build Back Better Act includes $162.9 billion to advance environmental justice priorities supported by the EJNCP co-authors such as the cleanup of Superfund sites and building a Civilian Climate Corps to employ the next generation of workers to address climate change and protect public lands, prioritizing training in low-income and communities of color, and Tribal and environmental justice communities. Passing this bill with the important investments we identified will let our communities know they are supported, heard, and empowered to lead. All these issues matter, and we need to address them. Building back better means building back with justice.
Quynh-Mai: I want people to see that the arts have a role in communicating issues and bringing them to light, and for artists to feel and know that they have the power to effect change through their work. I also want people who see the art and engage with the campaign to know that these issues affect them and that they can live in a world that is a reflection of their thriving selves.
What role do you think art plays more generally in public discourse about the climate crisis?
Michele: Art is indispensable in allowing communities to share their stories of the climate crisis. It’s important to bring humanity into the policy discussions that affect so many of us, and these different forms of expression allow us to do this. Art hits you in your heart: with no words, one is able to clearly understand the political and personal significance of a particular issue. Art is more powerful if it comes from the communities being represented. For this ad campaign, we specifically wanted an individual grounded in the social and environmental issues we are trying to tackle. Quynh-Mai Nguyen was able to beautifully capture the better world for all we envision if we make intentional investments towards environmental justice through legislation like the Build Back Better Act. Like in this campaign, art can be a storytelling vessel for what a better future can look like, and can engage folks who have never pondered the question of “what does a truly equitable and just climate future look like?”
Quynh-Mai: Art and art experiences can take complex or overwhelming subjects and make them comprehensible in the simplest of ways. Visual storytelling combined with positive messaging helps change fear and evoke a sense of hope, helping people visualize and feel connected to the unimaginable, especially when they can see themselves reflected in it. We are constantly being bombarded with a stream of negative images and mixed messaging. The immediacy of how we are able to obtain news, if it’s credible, to the amount of false content that we are exposed to through social media, can leave people feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fearful, insecure, helpless, and even apathetic towards issues that directly affect them. So it’s not surprising to find people, especially communities of color and low-income communities, feeling removed when it comes to public discourse around the climate crisis or feel that access to a world where they can find themselves thriving in is unattainable. Imagine the type of messages that these communities are exposed to in the media as well as in their daily lived experiences in environments that are built on the foundation of systemic and racial inequity. Living in a world where systemic issues are part of daily lives depletes the thought of being civically engaged in one’s community. People might believe since they don’t see change that they can’t be a part of change. Art can be a catalyst for change.
If my readers would like to get more involved in the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, how might they do that?
Michele: We encourage anyone interested in our movement for an equitable and just climate future for all to check our website and sign up for e-mail updates. On our site, you can read the Platform, learn about our history, and explore the stories of our Forum and the work of our Forum members. If you are an organization, you can also become a signatory organization of the Platform here. Through this e-mail list, we will share more updates, calls to action, and resources to the wider public. We hope this can empower you to bring our message and resources to your local communities and local spaces doing the on-the-ground work. We also invite readers to join this important conversation and share their thoughts on what an equitable and just future would look like in their community on our social media channels on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
What’s next for the both of you?
Michele: The EJNCP is excited to keep moving forward with the work to secure national climate and environmental policies that center justice and equity to advance economic, racial, climate, and environmental justice while tackling the climate crisis, recognizing the critical intersections of these issues. We have policy and outreach goals outlined to ensure we maintain our commitment to the Platform. One example of how we’ll do this in 2022 is by working to ensure President Biden’s Justice40 initiative is implemented and resources get to the communities most in need. The Justice40 Initiative was part of an Executive Order issued in the first few weeks of Biden’s presidency that directs Federal agencies to work with states and local communities to ensure that at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy go to disadvantaged communities. We will also work to share information, engage policymakers and partners, and mobilize Platform co-signers to advance the work of not leaving any communities behind.
Quynh-Mai: I will be producing and showcasing art for the 5th installment of Lunar X, a lunar new year group art show. A collective group of emerging Asian American artists, local artists, and students will be showcasing our work celebrating the Year of the Tiger at both locations of Tea Lyfe, a small women-owned tea shop. There will also be a virtual gallery featuring our work that will be accessible online for those not from their area and for those who especially cannot leave their house due to the pandemic. The virtual link will be launched on February 1st and can be accessed here or through Instagram. Through the work that I do with Art Builds Community, we are working on a project called Womanhood with the County of Santa Clara in California to explore how we can recognize the contributions of women across all intersectional identities within the region through public art. Starting in March for women’s history month, we will be pushing out some temporary pilot public art projects through outdoor banners and storefront window projections/installations to commemorate the women who helped build downtown and the arts sector in San Jose, CA. These pilot projects will be used as a framework to explore other methods of commemoration in other cities across the county.
(Top image: Poster art by Quynh-Mai Nguyen)
This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.
Amy Brady is the Executive Director of Orion Magazine, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books. She is also the co-editor of The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate (Catapult) and author of Ice: An American Obsession (GP Putnam’s Sons). Every month she edits the newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. Amy holds a PhD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.