In its evidence and reliable data, science offers its truths, but from art we need truths of a different order: Protean, yes, unpredictable, yes, disobedient, yes, but truths nonetheless; metaphoric, spiral truths, because we are not wholly rational creatures. It is not knowledge that we lack but parables to embody it and ethics to sustain the implementation of that knowledge—Jay Griffiths, 2009

The Science / Art Relation

Scientists and artists have different skills, conventions, perspectives and capabilities. Their respective attention to, and validation of, reasoning processes differ in the sense that scientists only accept proven or higher levels of likeliness to a given hypothesis for an experiment to be deemed scientifically sound, while artists validate work through the level of instilled passion or motivated change (James, 2009). In relation to climate change, art can have a function to alert human imagination, provoke an emotional response to images and to change human consciousness (McCulloch, 2012) while science seeks truth-finding into whether climate changes and how. As Natalie Jeremijenko points out:

The artists’ view is invaluable precisely because they are not experts and do not have the authority granted by science. They are only as persuasive as their images. As non-experts – though interested and knowledgeable – they stand in for the view of the everyman…. They transcend boundaries; they transcend borders, disciplines, issues, and expertise. With art, the viewer knows what she has a licence to interpret, to critically evaluate the work, that her opinion matters. (Jeremijenko, 2007)

Unlike scientists, artists have the freedom (or at least claim this), to weave facts, opinions, thoughts, emotion and colour all together to produce tangible forms and visuals (James, 2009). Art can be seen to be different in many ways and even more so in recent decades given the insights from post-structuralism whereby the thing apparently seen is merely a signifier of that which is apprehended, there is a tendency for artists to celebrate the manner in which art deals with the unknowable. As Filip Vandeveire expresses it:

Art confronts humans with the absolute ‘in-elevatable’ queerness, which haunted their existence. In art the truth appears in a dark mirror. We want to experience that the real in its essence is kept hidden, and this is what art lets us experience. Art will bring us one step towards the unknown, will let us wonder about the being of things, which we cannot know. (2002)

Art is allowing us insights into the unknown, undiscovered and uncertain changes in our environment, but will, at the same time, keep aspects of the unknown hidden. Therefore, to integrate art, it is essential, as Grosveld claims, to contribute genuine elements of art: freedom and the experience of the unknown (2005).

Despite the differences between art and science, it can be argued that climate change art could support the uptake of climate science as it emphasizes the emotional motivation it considers. The question of whether we need climate change art was raised by Milan Ilnyckyj, who refers to the way art expands experiential horizons and motivates people emotionally in contrast to the sciences, where this appears only occasionally (2009). Ilnyckyj formulates a set of significant questions, including: ‘Has any important climate change art emerged? Is there a danger that art that plays upon the worst fears evoked by climate science will be counterproductive?’ (2009)— not only in relation to creating bad art, but also by instilling fear that in itself does not lead to positive action.

Having explored the problematic relationship of art and science particularly in relation to climate change, perhaps we need to acknowledge the role of further social relationships played out in a built environment. This then leads to an articulation of current relations between art and climate science in which four types are distinguished (figure 1):

Fig 1. Different types of relationships between art and decision-making and designing for the built environment

Fig 1. Different types of relationships between art and decision-making and designing for the built environment

Relations between Art and the Built Environment

Engineering projects photographed by artists have resulted in images that might be seen as art. These man-made elements, often dams, barriers or other infrastructures, are built to protect areas against climate threats. One of the better known examples is the Thames Barrier (figure 2):

Fig 2. The Thames barrier. Source/Credit: Flickr

Fig 2. The Thames barrier. Source/Credit: Flickr

Art can also indirectly influence and be influenced by the appearance of urban and landscape design. In modernism, immediate connections were established between painting and urban designs, which were almost a copy of an artwork. This correlation is demonstrated when Mondrian visited Manhattan and, inspired by the urban patterns, painted Broadway Boogie Woogie. A clear similarity between the painting and the city structure, even today, is visible (figure 3):

Fig 3. The similarities between Broadway Boogie Woogie and contemporary Manhattan. Source/Credit: Wikimedia and Air Pano

Fig 3. The similarities between Broadway Boogie Woogie and contemporary Manhattan. Source/Credit: Wikimedia and Air Pano

By contrast, paintings such as Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red and Van Doesburg’s Composition VII, the three graces, inspired city dwellers shortly after World War Two upon which to base urban designs as, for example, Pendrecht in Rotterdam. An almost literal use of the Rhythm of a Russian Dance by Van Doesburg (1918) led to Van den Broek and Bakema’s design for the Alexanderpolder neighbourhood in Rotterdam (figure 4):

Fig 4. Similarities of the ‘Rhythm of a Russian Dance’-painting and the plan for Rotterdam-Alexander neighbourhood. Source/Credit: MoMA and Pininterest

Fig 4. Similarities of the ‘Rhythm of a Russian Dance’-painting and the plan for Rotterdam-Alexander neighbourhood. Source/Credit: MoMA and Pininterest

Eight Potential Roles of Art

The framing of possible future roles of art in contributing to understand, and act upon climate change, can be understood from several dimensions (see figure 9 below).

The first dimension along the continuum of ‘reflect’ and ‘rouse’ determines what may be called the action perspective. Does art reflect on developments and does it aim to contemplate and objectively describe what happens? Or does art try to engage people and does it aim to stimulate discussions in order to act upon climate change? Does it have an activist approach? The second dimension is the time orientation. Does art take a retrospective perspective or does it focus on future developments, aleatory events and threats? The third dimension is the attitude art takes towards climate change. Does art view climate change as a threat or more as a chance event and a challenge? These three dimensions are brought together in one framework. Where art raises consciousness and views climate as a chance occurrence, it is more future oriented, as opposed to reflexive and disaster-oriented viewpoints, which are more likely to focus on the past.

The following eight roles of art can be characterised as the roles of reporter, interpreter, messenger, predictor, designer, manipulator, provoker, and imaginer.


Art can act as a report of past disasters related to climate change. This role has endured throughout history. The 15th Century floods were represented by Dutch landscape painters in works such as The St. Elizabeth Flood of 1421 and the 1653 Dutch estuary or flood scene by Jan Josephszoon van Goyen.

Later, the role of reporting disasters was taken over by photographers. The major flood that hit the Netherlands in 1953 was captured by several photographers—a tradition that still continues. Most recently, the impact of hurricane Sandy were captured through photography (figure 5) by Charles Sykes and others to reveal the impact of the cyclone upon the landscape in terms of day-to-day changes.

Fig 5. A parking lot in Manhattan full of yellow cabs is flooded as result of Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken. Photographer: Charles Sykes. New York Writes Itself

Fig 5. A parking lot in Manhattan full of yellow cabs is flooded as result of Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken. Photographer: Charles Sykes. New York Writes Itself


Secondly, art can take on the role of interpreter of climate change processes, including their influence on landscape formation. Here, art interprets the process in a relatively objective way, which is to say in light of the latest science (Liverman, 2009). Nonetheless, artists can translate the world of science into the world of imagination, rendering scientific realities of statistics and graphs into human parables, paintings and plays (Griffiths, 2009). A good example is the explanatory way art represents ‘drowned’ villages in the Netherlands and the paintings and artworks that ‘explain’ the forming of landscapes in the drowned area of Saeftinghe in the southwest of the Netherlands.


Art can also play a role whereby the artist acts as a messenger across boundaries (see Tunstall 2009 & Griffiths 2009). This may, of course, be in the form of an (abstract) image, which speaks for itself and to others. According to this model, the message is often a condemnation of the activities of humankind that have destroyed nature. For example, this is the case in the film ‘Chasing Ice’ in which photographer James Balog shows the results of human intervention through his Extreme Ice Survey.


Another role of art may be to create a realistic image of what could happen in the event of future climate change. Although this role is not extensively encountered, a good example is the work of Jason Elliot, who creates images of popular English places as African jungles with exotic animals and tropical vegetation.


When art takes on the role of designer, it can create a future that deals with or mitigates climate change. The design and realisation of concrete projects can result in an artistic act that contributes to a better, more climate resilient world, and showcases this to the public. There are many good examples of this model, especially in the built environment, such as the Cargarden, a garden designed in a car that makes it possible to move house whilst bringing the garden with it!


When art operates as a manipulator it modifies reality, demanding attention from the viewer, public or audience. This may be delivered though exaggeration and thus take on a satirical perspective as is the case in the manipulated images that circulated online in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York.


As Diana Liverman amongst others argues, debate can be provoked by images, especially when adjusting real images into something that could plausibly have occurred (Liverman, 2009). Such procedure fosters discussion and raises awareness. Further, there is some evidence that it has contributed towards positive action leading to a more sustainable future. The work of Maarten Heiloo, for example, is pre-eminently provocative. Heiloo mixes reality and envisioned disastrous futures by utilising surrealistic images of coastal events, such as that of a Drowned Village (figure 6).

Fig 6. Drowned Village. Photographer: Maarten Heiloo. Source: Flickr

Fig 6. Drowned Village. Photographer: Maarten Heiloo. Source: Flickr


When a vision for a desired climate-proof future is co-created with stakeholders and the local community, visualisations provide a support

for ordinary people to think about climate resilience in society and / or the natural environment. Art is often used in design workshops or charrettes to visualise, map and model the vision that is developed. Good examples of visualisations were realised during design charrettes in Bendigo (figure 7) and Sea Lake in the form of 3D plasticine models (Roggema et al., 2011; 2012) and visioning exercises in Anglesea (figure 12) and Creswick (Biggs et al., 2014).

Fig 7. Plasticine model developed during the Bendigo charrette.

Fig 7. Plasticine model developed during the Bendigo charrette.

These eight roles can be linked to one of the identified frames, the biospheric, anthropocentric or ecosophic, or may even overlap (figure 8). Reporting, interpreting and predicting are roles that are mainly driven by anthropocentric, technical-rational perspectives, while the role of messenger is driven from a biospheric view. The manipulator role incorporates elements from the anthropocentric and ecosophic and the roles of designer, provoker and imaginator are all mainly driven by ecosophic considerations, aiming at unifying human and natural elements.

Fig 8. Different roles framed.

Fig 8. Different roles framed.

When these roles are positioned in the framework of dimensions (figure 9), the reporting and interpreting roles stand out as looking back in history, reflecting and viewing climate change mainly as a threat. However, an interpreting role also implies a teleological perspective with what may be called ‘elements of looking forwards.’ The predictor and messenger roles conceive of climate change as a threat, but aim to raise consciousness and focus on the past as well as the future. The manipulator role looks to the future, considers climate change as a threat, and aims to raise consciousness. The provoker and the imaginator are roles that conceive of climate change as a challenge, aiming to arouse raise consciousness and look towards the future whereas the designer role encourages reflection.

Fig 9. Roles positioned in the dimensional framework.

Fig 9. Roles positioned in the dimensional framework.

This article has given a brief overview of the relationship between art and the environment both built and natural. The objective was to identify potential roles for art in the current climate change debate and to position art in an historical context. It concludes that art can take up many different roles in the climate debate and that there is no longer one dominant perspective. In literature, painting and photography, the environment and the way the natural world is considered are related to beliefs, actions and perceptions of human beings. People’s attitude in dealing with the environment is understood in three fundamentally different ways: nature is the dominant factor (the biospheric), human beings dominate nature (the anthropocentric), or, alternatively, there is a mutual, tense inter-relationship between the two (ecosophy). The latter frame is relatively new and still taking shape. This implies searching for roles that fit this complex and integrated frame in which the whole and the parts of the entire system are inextricably connected. Human beings and nature are one and the same, technology and nature are two parts of one whole, and synthetic and biologic nature are interwoven in one natural system.

When focusing on climate change as such, one realises it is only very recently that it is represented in works of art. There have been historical representations of disasters such as floods, but they were not linked to the concept of climate change. Most likely it is not a coincidence that this problem of climate change appears in the ecosophic frame, as it is a complex problem, without clear directions or solutions.

When the eight roles are positioned in the dimensions graph, it becomes clear that most of these new roles are oriented towards the future, and aim to provoke debate, as well as conceive of climate change as an opportunity for change. At the same time, the majority of these roles, placed in the biospheric-athropocetric-ecosophic frame, belong (partly) to the ecosophic part of the scheme. The roles that belong to the biospheric and anthropocentric spheres conceive of climate change as a threat and tend to focus on history. These are also well-known roles, reporting, interpreting and operating as messenger. It may be coincidental, but these roles fit very well with more traditional views on scientific rationalised and explanatory reasoning. Therefore, it may be fair to conclude that the current roles implicating the ecosophic frame require a new mode of theorisation and a new academic approach. Key elements of such a theory concern tactile work methods, such as those practised in design charrettes, and, further, engage emotion as a driver for academic discourse in contrast to more traditional or rational approaches.

This article articulates eight different roles art can play in the climate debate and it defines these roles. Additionally, it argues that there is a need to (re)define these different roles in more depth in order to determine when certain roles are appropriate and efficient, especially with regard to initiating debate and thought.

The main question addressed in this article concerns the ways in which art may foster an understanding of climate change with a view to anticipating its impacts. Looking back in history, climate is represented in visual art in many ways. The earliest landscape paintings from the Dutch school depict the rich climatic differences apparent in the sky. Nice summer days are pictured in works of art for aesthetic purposes, but also to ‘report’ or remember climatic extremes. More recently, art has taken up an important role in partly addressing, designing and solving climate problems. In this regard, the roles of designer, imaginator and provoker are particularly effective in contributing to this debate. Moreover, these roles illustrate how inclusive this debate needs to be in its approach. Examples were used to illustrate how visual images stimulate creative thinking and contribute to innovative design processes and therefore thinking in a positive way. Design of landscapes, cities and buildings can therefore be positioned in between science and art, at the very least be conceived of in terms of an overlapping of science and art. Design operates then as the moderator between art and science, bringing the two together in concert to foster an understanding of how the use of climate information can design creative propositions for the natural environment. In this regard, the design process can be seen as a platform on which art and climatic science can be brought together so as to stimulate positive, albeit imaginary, scenarios for the future. Human beings and technology are herewith positioned as part of nature, or, to paraphrase Jackson (2009), art is implicated in the very nature of development.



Biggs, Che, Ryan, Chris, Bird, Jessica, Trudgeon, Michael & Roggema, Robert. (2014). Visions of Resilience. Design-led Transformation for Climate Extremes (Melbourne: Victorian Department of Justice)

Doepel, Duzan, Timmermans, Wim & Matton, Ton eds. (2006). Suburban Ark (Rotterdam: episode publishers)

Griffiths, Jay. (2009). ‘The far-seers of art.’ In: Julie’s bicycle (Curator) Long horizons: an exploration of art + climate change (London: British Council)

Grosveld, Gerard. (2005). ‘Inleiding.’ In: Melis, Liesbeth, ed. Kunst en Ruimtelijke (ont)ordening. SKOR Kunstprojecten, deel 1. Amsterdam: SKOR

Hutchins, Christina. (2009). Climate Change, Our Warming World (Bristol: Alistair Sawday Publishing Co)

Ilnyckyj, Milan. (2009). ‘Climate Change Art,’ at [accessed 29.12.2014]

James, Frank. (2009). Q&A: ‘Why Make Climate Change Art?’ at [accessed 26.02.2015]

Jeremijenko, Natalie. (2007). ‘The arts community is responding to climate change, and changing the conversation in the process’. SEED magazine’ at [accessed 06.02.2015]

Liverman, Diana. (2009). ‘Seeking inspiration: a scientist turns to the cultural sector.’ In: Julie’s bicycle (Curator) Long horizons: an exploration of art + climate change. (London: British Council)

Matton, Ton, Kuypers, Vincent  & Timmermans, Wim. (2004). BosBus, Mobiel Natuurreservaat (Rotterdam: episode publishers)

McCulloch, Ann. (2012). ‘Can art change minds where science can’t?’ The Conversation, at, [accessed 13.02.2013]

Melis, Liesbeth. ed (2005). Kunst en Ruimtelijke (ont)ordening. SKOR Kunstprojecten, deel 1 (Amsterdam: SKOR)

Roggema, Rob, Jones, Roger, Soh, Agnes, Clune, Stephen. Hunter, Shae, Barilla, Anna, Cai, Zhipeng, Tian, Jing & Walsh, Justin (2011). City of Greater Bendigo Design Charrette I, the Report (Melbourne:  RMIT University, La Trobe University, Victoria University and VCCCAR)

Roggema, Rob, Jones, Roger, Clune, Stephen & Lindenbergh, Diana (2012). Sea Lake Charrette, Dancing under the Stars (Melbourne: RMIT University, La Trobe University, Victoria University and VCCCAR)

Sjentizer, Fransje & Vermeer, Norbert. (undated). Het Mysterie van Polderbrug (Utrecht: EZ, VROM and Novem)

Timmermans, Wim. (2001). Wildlife in the City (Best: Aeneas)

Tunstall, K.T. (2009). ‘Sound and Vision.’ In: Julie’s bicycle (Curator) Long Horizons: An Exploration of Art + Climate Change (London: British Council)

Vandeveire, Filip. (2002). Als in een Donkere Spiegel. De kunst in de Modern Filosofie (Amsterdam: Boom Uitgevers)

Wasco (2002). Het Eetbare Landschap (Wageningen: Alterra) [accessed 1.11.09] [accessed 12.02.13]