Climate in Literature and Art

A list of different art works like books, movies, installations and music, where climate change or the need to address climate emergency is used as a major underlying motif.

Literature and art often reflect stories from the world around us. They highlight and express a combination of our histories, worldviews, past experiences, current contexts and our belief systems. In recent years, our newspapers have been increasingly peppered with articles on how the climate is changing. Every day brings a fresh spate of alarming news about the state of the global environment from the heat waves in Canada, melting glaciers to the devastating floods battering cities across the world. Such incidences have forced authors, directors, and even artists and musicians to acknowledge the climatic risks threatening the world and bring attention to such themes through their work. While some of the works reflect the current conditions and serve as commentaries of the impact of global warming, others project images of what our future may look like if we don’t correct course and take definite action. In the following post I am listing different works (books, movies, art installations, music and animations) that have used climate change or the need to address climate emergency as a major underlying motif in their work.

  1. BOOKS – “Gun Island” (2019) by Amitav Ghosh
    Climate change has a comparatively smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does in non-fiction. Most novelists choose to write non-fiction when discussing climate change. However, this void in literary mainstream is being slowly addressed. One recent book that uses Climate Change as a major theme is Gun Island written by Amitav Ghosh. The book follows the journey of Deen, a New York-based antiquarian book seller from the islands of Sundarbans to the waters of Venice as he tries to decipher the truth behind the myth of the Gun Merchant and Manasi Devi, the goddess of snakes. It also brings back the character of Pia, an American marine biologist researching dolphins in the Sundarbans, who fans of Ghosh’s previous novels, may remember is the protagonist of Hungry tide, which is also set in the Sundarbans. Gun Island weaves a story of how climate change can impact the lives of millions and also the looming problem of climate refugees. Another compelling read is Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver which examines the consequences of climate change on biodiversity like the Monarch Butterflies in the book through the eyes of a young woman named Dellarobia.
  1. MOVIES – “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) by Davis Guggenheim
    An Inconvenient Truth is one of the most recognizable documentary films released that discusses climate change and the impact of global warming. The documentary by Guggenheim featured former presidential candidate Al Gore, who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2007 for his work on climate activism. Using photo slides, the Academy Award winning documentary explains how anthropogenic actions are damaging the planet and what needs to be done to prevent future deterioration. A sequel to the documentary called An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power was also released in 2017. In the world of fiction films, however, the movies that depict climate crisis right are slimmer and usually spell apocalyptic doom like The Day after Tomorrow. However, Snowpiercer by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho is a great thriller which is as much a commentary on class warfare as it an environmental message on what can happen if the world fails to take the right action to stop climate change.
  1. MUSIC – “4 Degrees” (2016) by ANOHNI
    Music has always been used as a medium to draw attention to global issues challenging the world and to push social movements into the limelight. Environmentalism in music is nothing new with songs like Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell or Earth Song by Michael Jackson often being used as green anthems. Climate change is also finding its way into songwriter’s lyrics. ‘4 degrees’ is one such scathing song by Anohni which draws attention to the world’s inaction and longing for the world to burn. The song explores the devastating impact that a four degree rise in temperatures can bring. Another popular song that comes to mind and alludes to climate change is “All Star” by Smash Mouth (1999) which talks about the ozone hole and melting ice shelf.
    Check it out:
  1. ART INSTALLATION – “Ice Watch” (2014) by Olafur Eliasson
    Ice Watch is a renowned art installation set up in the front courtyard of the Tate Modern and Bloomberg’s headquarters in London by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in 2014 to address the damaging impact of climate change. The artist transported 30 large blocks of glacial ice from Greenland and allowed visitors to interact with them before they melted and vanished. His artwork clearly showcased the need for urgent climate action and invokes images similar to that of polar bears walking on thin sea ice in the Arctic commonly used to showcase climate tipping points. While only images of Ice watch remain, people interested in art and climate change can head to the online Living Waters Museum, India page which curates visual narratives of India’s water heritage and inspires viewers to re-connect with their natural environment.
    Check it out:
  1. ANIMATION – “Weathering with you” (2019) by Makoto Shinkai
    Weathering with you is a Japanese anime or animated movie revolving around a climate crisis. It is directed by Makoto Shinkai famously known for another anime called ‘Your Name’. This movie primarily centres on the protagonist Hodaka, a teenage boy who runs away to Tokyo, where he befriends a girl with the ability to manipulate the weather. In the movie, Japan is beset by unabated rainfall and the fate of the city lies in the hands of Hodaka and his friends. The movie easily allows us to draw actual real world parallels like the current unrelenting heatwave impacting Canada. The movie has a deeply socio-environmental conscious undertone and entreats the world to pay attention to the climate emergency. For animation lovers, the movie is visually gorgeous and the attention to details in the artwork actually has the amazing ability to transport you to a rain riddled Tokyo.
    Other honourable mentions from the land of animes include Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1998) which tackled the issue of rapid industrializations and its impact on nature. If nineties is the vibe you like Captain Planet and the Planeteers is another great retro animated series that focuses on the importance of protecting the planet. Though the animation may seem dated themes like using renewable energy, empowering the youth and the importance of working together to solve environmental crises is the essence of the series.
    Works of fiction and art can help in getting people to pay attention to what’s already happening. Unlike research articles and policy briefs, art and literature are more accessible, interesting and can provide a totally immersive experience for communicating complex matters like climate change. They can be thought-provoking meditations on the deepest issues of our time, without being extremely technical. A few studies have even demonstrated that exposure to works showcasing climate issues have significant positive effects on an individual’s climate change beliefs and attitudes. The above listicle while not exhaustive might be a good place to start for anyone interested in climate action. I hope they will make you think and appreciate the world around us.

Sudeshna Maya Sen | Deputy Manager – Climate Change

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