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Can we adapt through art?

By Aishath Green, on 11 January 2024

Image of a clapper board with climate change written on it in capitals letters.
Movie clapper with Climate Change text on red background” by focusonmore.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

When first writing this piece, London was in the midst of a late summer heatwave with headlines declaring the ‘unprecedented seventh consecutive day of 30C heat’. It struck my attention not just because of its abnormality for the time of year, but also because of my collaboration as part of UCL’s Performing Planet Activism Programme. The partnership between our research programme on the role of knowledge in adapting to climate change and the Wise Ram Theatre seeks to bring together scientific research and performance to develop a piece of work which responds to the realities of climate change.

Using theatre to adapt

Through their first production ‘Decommissioned’ written by co-director Molly Anne Sweeney, Wise Ram demonstrates how the severity of climate issues such as sea level rise might be conveyed to wider audiences. Taking the real life story of Fairbourne – a village on the west-coast of Wales whose council have made the decision to stop investing in its sea defences – the play imagines a narrative that seeks to convey the reality of a problem that could affect ‘10% of the world’s population that live in coastal areas fewer than 10 metres above sea level’. While discussing the play, Wise Ram’s other co-director Sofia Bagge tells me that the power of theatre is that it can take challenges that may seem abstract (both in their temporality and ability to comprehend) by relating them to our everyday experiences.

In ‘Decommissioned’, a flooding event causes an annual school camping trip to be cancelled and re-imagined inside the classroom. While seemingly a small disruption, Sofia states that by demonstrating how routine might be broken by the climate events we are more frequently confronted with, it becomes possible to address issues as catastrophic as sea level rise or extreme heat. She states that in order to make something compelling, you have to remove a lot of the detail because otherwise it could become too slow. Indeed, climate change research introduces ‘complexities, anxieties and new questions into many areas of life’. By conveying it through performance, however, Sofia remarks that directors have the power to take the audience on a journey and decide how an issue is spoken about or represented.

Memories

While performance has the capacity to help us understand complex issues through narrative and imagination, it also prompts us to remember and reflect. In the context of extreme heat and the increased frequency of related events such as forest fires, this can be fundamental in creating a collective memory around incidents that are easily pushed out of our minds or relegated to the past. The idea of collective amnesia is familiar – there are countless historical events that for various reasons people, communities and governments have wanted to forget. Moments deemed somewhat heroic, or worthy of remembering on the other hand, are repeatedly celebrated and platformed in plays, novels and cinema (World War II rings many bells). Yet, performance has a vital role to play in helping us to continually confront and reflect on urgent and traumatic events: ‘on stage, history is recalled to serve both the present and the future’. Re-imagining, re-forming and re-conceptualising the climate events that have already begun affecting us can ensure that the unusual summer heat is not dismissed.

However, the ways in which performance can choose to address climate related issues need not be so explicit. That is to say, addressing the climate crisis does not only mean ‘making work about climate change’. As Woynarski states ‘the problem-solution model, drawn on when theatre is utilised to ‘communicate’ specific ecological problems and ‘solutions’, often instrumentalises performance in a reductive way and largely focuses on content’. This approach she argues ‘does not leave room for the nuance, complexity or intermeshment of contemporary ecological issues’.

Communicating through performance

How might a complex scientific concept such as a climate niche’ be conveyed to wider audiences? The film Parallel Mothers by Pedro Almodóvar provides inspiration. Almodóvar addresses the violence and loss of The Spanish Civil War not by creating a story that centres on this past but rather through an ‘engaging melodrama plot’ about two mothers whose children get switched at birth. The narrative which encourages the audience to reflect on the war is less than a side plot addressing a ‘single victim of falange violence’. It is by no means a film about the Civil War, but through a carefully interwoven narrative that follows the protagonist’s journey to have her great-grandfather exhumed at what she hopes is his burial site, Almodóvar touches on issues of national loss that have led his film to be ‘characterised as an intervention … to reckon with the legacy of Franco and the Civil War’. What this conveys is the ability of storytelling to deal with certain issues, whether from our past or our present, in myriad formats. In the context of work that seeks to address the climate crisis, this enables creators and performers to bring it into ‘contact with any and all kinds of theatre’.

Yet while performance can be effective through its implicitness, the opposite can also be true and in certain contexts this may leave room for more obvious stand points on certain issues. In the recent film How to Blow up a Pipeline, the focus and content of the film is clear from the outset, its intent evident in the title. Following the lives of seven protagonists impacted by the effects of climate change, it depicts them working together to destroy the oil pipeline that they deem to be destroying them. Unlike Parallel Mothers, the film explicitly invites us to engage with climate issues, using the genre of a heist thriller to keep its audience engrossed throughout. While the film’s lasting impact on its audience cannot be certain, what it does do through genre is encourage its viewers to think in a different way. While the characters in the film are depicted as ‘eco-terrorists’, they are also the heroes of the story. Unlike the mainstream media’s treatment of Just Stop Oil protests, this Hollywood film thus allows its viewers to engage with direct climate action in a more sympathetic way. As the film’s director states ‘the idea of empathising with characters who take action like this without ever condemning them for taking it too far, is something I don’t see in the media’.

Looking forward

While we are at the beginning of our project with Wise Ram, the methods above make me hopeful about the possibility of conveying the topic of extreme heat and the wider themes of our research around diverse knowledge practices in relation to climate change. I look forward to exploring the ways in which we can communicate global temperature rise, the ways in which this will affect urban environments and the specific impact this will have on socio-economically marginalised groups. Through our work we hope to generate emotional and creative responses that can inspire action around these topics, as well as learn and evolve through engaging with different forms of knowledge that exist beyond the policy community. Whether through small and personal stories, or bigger productions, performance can take the climate events we are experiencing and ensure they remain present. Yet as the playwright Kristin Idaszak says, ‘there is no one play or playwright that can take on the immensity of this story. Instead, we need a canon of climate plays, from playwrights of all subject positions and aesthetics’… this could be one of them.


Aishath Green is Research Manager at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction on the project Accountable Adaptation. This work was supported by a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship


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COP28 agreement on adapting to climate change kicks the real challenge down the road

By Susannah Fisher, on 15 December 2023

Jointly posted with the Conversation

photograph of a group of flag poles of multiple nationalities
Do the Cop28 targets go far enough to adapt to climate risks? Susannah Fisher.

COP28 concluded late on Wednesday morning to a mixed reaction. The Dubai agreement extracted a promise from nearly 200 countries to transition away from fossil fuels, but it leaves many questions unanswered when it comes to keeping global average temperatures from warming by more than 1.5°C. The world is rapidly running out of time to limit temperatures to this level – a crucial threshold for many communities living in low-lying islands and delicate ecosystems such as coral reefs.

The last year was the hottest on record, with catastrophic floods in Libya, extreme heat in south Asia, Europe, China and the US, and droughts across east Africa which were all made more likely as a result of climate change.

Even if the world keeps to 1.5°C, countries will still need to adapt to the effects of a harsher climate. If temperatures exceed 1.5°C, this will be even harder. At COP28, countries agreed the first targets to guide the global effort to adapt.

So, do they go far enough to address the growing scale of climate impacts?

Adaptation is essential

I am a researcher writing a book about the hard choices the world must make to adapt to climate change. For 12 years I have been working on adaptation planning and finance, attending the UN negotiations and researching how to make adaptation more ambitious and inclusive.

Every fraction of a degree of warming avoided by cutting emissions will give communities more breathing space to adapt. Adaptation involves making changes to accommodate the hotter climate and lessen its effects.

Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa struggling to grow food due to changes in rainfall can adapt with improved forms of irrigation and new crop varieties to maintain a similar level of productivity. Coastal communities can build seawalls to protect them from storm surges or plant mangrove forests to prevent the land eroding as fast. Bangladesh has developed early warning systems and invested in cyclone shelters.

The global framework for adaptation’s targets set out what countries must do and where the most progress needs to be made for goals like reducing climate-induced water scarcity. Even to get this agreement was a success given the technical and political challenges in measuring something like adaptation, which covers so many different things, from giving farmers in Asia better information on rainfall to increasing shade and cool spaces in cities.

We have limited ways to understand if the world is on track for many of these areas and the agreement contains a two-year work programme to develop indicators. We have more information on the systems and plans needed. For example, 101 countries have multi-hazard early warning systems in place – the goal aims for this to be all countries by 2027.

The framework will guide investment and shape the implementation of adaptation measures for the next decade. It will allow the global community to check if this process is on track, and to change course if it is not.

Will the goal meet the scale of the challenge?

A key sticking point for developing countries across the negotiations in Dubai was securing enough money from developed countries (the largest historical emitters and so the biggest culprits of climate chaos) to actually implement these necessary actions.

Developed countries have failed to deliver the US$40 billion (£31 billion) to US$50 billion a year promised as part of a doubling of money for adaptation agreed in 2021. This is part of the overall finance target of US$100 billion a year – agreed for both mitigation (cutting emissions) and adaptation back in 2009.

The latest UN report on adaptation showed that only US$21 billion was delivered in 2021, while financial needs for adaptation are 10-18 times higher than the amount of public finance available.

The agreement on adaptation in Dubai talks generally of the need for more finance, but makes few commitments. This is not enough, but detailed work on the next financial deal is scheduled at COP29. The agreement next year will aim to set a new target for mobilising money to reduce emissions and adapt – the target will replace the US$100 billion a year that runs until 2025.

Research shows that progress on adaptation has been slow, fragmented and uneven across the world. Between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people live in places that are expected to be highly vulnerable to climate change. In Africa, tens of thousands of people will die from extreme heat unless radical measures are taken to adapt. Between 800 million and 3 billion people will not have enough water at 2°C global warming – and up to 4 billion at 4°C. We also have very little evidence that funded adaptation measures are working.

The agreement in Dubai signals that the adaptation effort is off track and highlights areas for action such as water, food, healthcare and infrastructure. Critically, it offers little detail yet to check on global progress – we will need to wait one year for a new financial target and another two years for indicators that can assess progress in adapting lives and livelihoods.

Frameworks can create incentives for action, and it is vital the new global framework creates pressure for ambition and finance. But countries will need to wait to agree the detail on the money and the targets that will give it the teeth it needs.

While COP28 yielded incremental progress, the world waits for a leap forward in the pace and scale of climate adaptation.


Dr Susannah Fisher is UKRI Future Leaders Principal Research Fellow. She works across research, policy and practice on adapting to climate change with an interest in ensuring climate finance supports effective and equitable adaptation, and that adaptation is at the scale and ambition we need for the escalating impacts of climate change.


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