Burning issues

By GREG COOK  |  June 20, 2007

Other artists circle the subject. Hyde Park artist Deb Todd Wheeler’s Live Experiments in Human Energy Exchange installation at Boston’s Green Street Gallery last November riffed on our addiction to fossil fuels and conservation with a bicycle jury-rigged to power lights, music, and robot birds and butterflies flapping over models of failed utopian designs including the 1964 New York World’s Fair and Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Brookline artist Nathalie Miebach’s basket sculptures, which opaquely chart climate data for Cape Cod, are included in the 2007 DeCordova Museum Annual Exhibition in Lincoln (up through August 12).

The result of all this art is that global-warming-themed exhibitions are beginning to crop up. This past winter, Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in New Hampshire presented “Thin Ice,” an exhibit of Inuit art and crafts from the museum’s collection displayed next to climate-change data in an awkward effort to prompt visitors to consider how global warming affects native peoples of the Arctic. There’s also the group exhibition “Green Horizons” at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (through December 9), which includes Rockman’s Manifest Destiny. And the Cambridge School of Weston has scheduled a global-warming art exhibit for November.

Much global-warming art takes it for granted that climate change is a problem, but a prominent example of global-warming skepticism was Michael Crichton’s 2004 potboiler novel State of Fear, in which the derring-do of an MIT professor defeats environmental activists who serve as fronts for terrorists aiming to perpetrate a vast global-warming hoax. He manages to quell these evil plots between lectures on the alleged lies of global-warming science. The book, in which the cherry-picked and often inaccurate scientific data were the most believable part, got Crichton an invite to chat with President Bush. And Republican senator James Inhofe of Ohio, who has called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” had Crichton testify before Congress.

Still, scientists and political art like An Inconvenient Truth have fostered a broad and growing consensus on global warming as a real and critical issue — and on what needs to be done about it. (Cut carbon-dioxide emissions.) As political art goes, global warming — unlike, say, our current wars — is a safe subject. I’ve even seen school children’s global-warming drawings at my local public library.

“There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety out there among people who study the climate,” New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert, who lives in the Berkshires, said last March during a talk at the Museum of Science. “Why hasn’t the alarm of the climate-science community come through to the public?” She attributed that failure to the dense, obscure, and purposely dispassionate language of science — a language that reflects a careful devotion to unbiased data. This is where art can be helpful. Kolbert’s writing and, especially, Gore’s film demonstrate the power of art to convey the drama and urgency of a great environmental, social, and political problem to a broad public, and to move the debate forward. “Global warming is not going away. It is a fact of our lives,” Kolbert said. “I fear for some of the young people in this room.”

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