December 2015 Reflections: climate change conferences, art and rain

9th February 2016

CCS Director, Ben Twist, shares his reflections of 2015's COP and ArtCOP21.

December 2015 for me was all about three things: the COP21 climate change talks in Paris, our own ArtCOP Scotland season of art responding to climate change, and – like for many people in northern England and Scotland – storms and flooding.


I went to Paris for the COP and ArtCOP21, an artists’ workshop, which brought together 100 or more people, mostly from the arts, who talked about the projects they’d been working on. ArtCOP21 was all well and good until Diana Liverman – probably the only scientist there – leaned forward and said, ‘You people have no idea what operating in a world of 80% carbon reductions will be like.’ Her comment was slightly brushed aside but we picked the argument up again later; I wondered out loud whether we were all doing things we quite liked doing – nice projects, but tinkering around the edges.

I’ve been arguing for some time that we are facing one enormous social change or another: either we manage to totally transform our society to one releasing 80% less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050; or the global temperature rise by 2100 is way more than the biosphere, as it currently supports humanity, can bear. Either way, major social changes will occur. I don’t think we have any idea what this might mean. Our whole society, our whole way of life, our whole set of artistic worlds are based on consumption and carbon.

The Paris Agreement, the result of the COP21 negotiations, makes this all the clearer. While the Agreement retains the aim of achieving a maximum global temperature rise of 2°C, it also enshrines for the first time the target of 1.5°C, largely as a result of pressure from small island states and others that will be very badly hit by warming of 2°. But I understand that the scientists at the COP were very sceptical that the 2° target could be achieved, let alone the lower one. The necessary transformation of the electricity supply to renewables is surely achievable; decarbonisation of heating (roughly 40% of emissions here in Scotland) is a lot harder, but again may be possible; transport is a greater challenge yet – air travel and road-freight transport are the two main areas where emissions in Scotland have risen in recent years. Aviation and maritime emissions were left out of the Paris Agreement because, as Annalisa Saveresi, a lawyer from the University of Edinburgh argues, they are just too difficult and the arguments would have blocked the agreement.

(Interestingly, at a talk last night, one of the speakers postulated that one reason for the current slump in the oil price is that the oil producing countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, might be taking the Paris Agreement seriously. If governments follow it up, oil will be more heavily taxed and difficult to sell, so why not pump every last drop now before that happens, even if the glut reduces the price? It made me feel quite optimistic!)

In Paris, we artists were talking together in a comfortable arts venue in the centre of the city. I worry that the real conversation was happening miles out in a glorified shed in the suburbs of Le Bourget, where the COP was taking place. When I went there on my last day in Paris I bumped into Elizabeth Dirth, the vice-chair of the 2050 Climate Group of young climate leaders in Scotland; there were also NGOs and charities, engineering companies selling their technologies, think tanks by the dozen. Where were the artists? I didn’t see any there. We hadn’t been invited, and we weren’t clamouring to get in. ‘Side events’, as they are called, are the public face and the showcase of the COP. While the official negotiations take place in the main halls and rooms, the public areas are full of ideas being swapped, knowledge formed. If we in the arts really think we have a role in addressing climate change, I think we need to be there.

I travelled to and from Paris for the COP and ArtCOP21 by train – as Elizabeth Dirth argues, aviation is a climate justice issue: by flying in a world where our carbon budget is limited, you’re saying that your time is more important than someone else’s cooking fuel or food. And the longer journey on the train is nicer. You can work, read, sleep – none of which are really possible on a plane. My journey home was disrupted by the floods in northern England: I eventually got home some eight hours late and only by the skin of my teeth after lots of creative thinking about connections, trains and buses! There’s no doubt that the floods are consistent with the weather changes we’d expect from global heating, and they will happen again. They brought home the points I’ve made above: change is coming, whether we like it or not – the question is whether we adapt and manage the change, or whether we ignore it until it’s too late.

ArtCOP Scotland Launch

ArtCOP Scotland Launch

ArtCOP Scotland, our own artistic response to climate change and the COP, took place in an atmosphere of meteorological crisis and showed people managing – sometimes only just! There’s not enough room, and I don’t have the skills, to do it justice here so I commend you to two think-pieces Creative Carbon Scotland commissioned that take a critical look at the work, our own approach, and the weather that affected it. Moira Jeffrey wrote about the visual arts work and Wallace Heim about the performing arts. They are both thoughtful, knowledgeable pieces.


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