The Role of Art in Climate Change Activism

Painting of bears by Mina Bedogne
This piece by Mina Bedogne uses acrylic and watercolor paints on canvas. (Courtesy Mina Bedogne)

The 2019 Netflix series, Our Planet, received a huge Twitter uproar this past spring over a particular walrus scene during Episode 2, “Frozen Worlds.”

The scene, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, zooms in on walruses as they plummet to their deaths. Attenborough explains that walruses are forced to seek land on these high cliffs because their usual ice landmass is melting due to climate change. The scene was horrific, but it was filmed so beautifully that it compelled me to want to do something.

Netflix offers a behind-the-scenes video of that scene. Viewer discretion is advised. Seriously.

This got me thinking, could I use art to help ocean conservation in some way? After learning more about the ocean in Professor John Largier’s “Marine Issues” course at UC Davis and watching the artistry of a Flume-Greenpeace music video collaboration, I had that light-bulb moment.

I thought, what if I started a student organization focused on using art to help promote the idea that climate change is detrimental to the ocean and marine wildlife?

Lime green seahorse artwork

“Leafy Sea Dragon,” by Lara Hsia. The piece is done in acrylic on plexiglass. The artist’s choice of clear background and translucent layers were intended to convey the fragility of the animal’s habitat and population. (Courtesy Lara Hsia)

At first I thought the idea was dumb, like who would catch on to the idea that art can do something to help the oceans? But, after an influential call with my mother, I finally decided to plaster flyers around campus, calling for people to join the ranks. One by one, the emails came in, expressing interest from students from a variety of different majors. Eventually, an officer team was formed, ideas were discussed, and now UC Davis has a new student organization called Art and the Oceans.

Artistic view of white sea bird in purple water

Artist Mina Bedogne manipulated one of her photographs for this piece. (Courtesy Mina Bedogne)

I started this club because I believe that climate activism can take many forms. Activism can be loud, like when UC Davis students protested for climate action on the quad. Or it can be quiet, like doing art or writing letters to your representatives.

Science also has a place in activism, as educating the public properly is extremely important. The UC Davis Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory is making substantial feats in climate change research studies.

Activism can even be done on a small, personal-scale, like riding your bike to work or composting, as these activities do indeed have big impacts.

I personally use art because I believe that it has this power to invoke a kind of emotion that motivates people to go out and do something.

Purple sea scene painted on ankle of black jeans

Artist Devon Liu painted an underwater ocean scence on the ankle of her jeans. (Courtesy Devon Liu)

Everyone has a role to play in defending our oceans and planet from the effects of climate change. Do what motivates you to motivate change. For more tips and inspiration on how to do so, just read the other articles on this blog.

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Ellen Caminiti is a science-writing intern with UC Davis Strategic Communications.

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