Can Art Help People Feel the Devastation of Climate Change? - Pacific Standard

Can Art Help People Feel the Devastation of Climate Change?

Miranda Massie hopes the Climate Museum in New York City can convince visitors to be better stewards of the climate—by appealing at once to their intellect and their emotions.
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In early 2018, a small gallery at the Parsons School of Design in Lower Manhattan glowed with a bluish-green light. It emanated from an art installation by Peggy Weil titled 88 Cores, which consisted of a short film panning downward through two miles of Greenland's ice sheet, and a display of several scans of ice cores, some as old as 110,000 years, others as young as 30. The scans lined the gallery walls in chronological order, and, taken together, they depicted a frightening narrative: Greenland's ice sheet is melting, and its fractures have grown significantly larger over time. Overhead, a droning soundtrack by Los Angeles-based composer Celia Hollander hummed through the gallery speakers, adding to the show's overall effect, at once chilling and beautiful.

It also felt potentially persuasive. Here, presented as art, was clear and unsettling evidence that the Earth is warming. Can art like this help some people to see just how devastating climate change can be? That's the hope of former social justice lawyer Miranda Massie, the founder and director of New York's new Climate Museum, which hosted the exhibit.

The idea for the museum came to Massie in 2012. That year, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, where she was living at the time. The storm was of record proportions, flooding much of Lower Manhattan and making real in the minds of many New Yorkers just how devastating the effects of climate change could be. "After Sandy I knew I had to do something," Massie says when I meet her for lunch on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Massie's Climate Museum­­­—whose board of trustees and staff plan to start looking in several years for a permanent home in New York City—is only the second of its kind in the world (the first is in Hong Kong). Its purpose, she says, is to educate people about the effects of climate change through exhibits and public programs that appeal as much to emotion as to intellect. "One of the best trial lawyers I learned from when I was practicing civil rights law told me that the way to focus a jury's mind was through the heart," Massie says. "You have to create space for the major emotions—from fear and anger over to amusement, hope, and even love."

Scientific research supports this theory. Consider a recent study conducted by researchers Sabine Pahl and Judith Bauer. They presented participants with stories and slides about a woman suffering from the negative effects of climate change. Some of the participants were asked to imagine themselves as the woman, an action that helped them empathize with her situation, while others were asked to view her circumstances more analytically. Afterwards, those who imagined themselves in the woman's shoes were more likely to pick up educational materials about climate change.

"There's no evolutionary reason for us to be able to comprehend the scale of [climate change]," Massie says during our lunch. That's why Peggy Weil's work, she says, is so important: "The museum has to create space for strong feelings and recognize that [those feelings] are a primary pathway into climate engagement. We saw that with [Weil's] exhibition. Visitors described themselves as feeling emotions including awe and an intense sense of responsibility."

In person, Massie is bullish about the museum’s prospects: "People are hungry for an institution like this," she says. But in order to start a "new kind of climate civil action, we need to create a space where diverse voices can enrich each other and grow together."

I try to picture the denialists walking through 88 Cores at Parsons, and I ask whether they are welcome in the museum. Massie sighs. "They can come to the museum or not, but I’m tired of watching people try to argue with them in the public sphere." I ask how we should interact with them, and she takes a moment to stir her tea before answering. "We don't," she says finally. "It's time we give them the silent treatment."

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

*Update—June 11th, 2018: The lead photo credit has been updated to include the name of the photographer.

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