Brandon Atkinson via Flickr

What if climate change was purple?

James Renwick explains why he’s investing prize money from a PM’s science award into bringing artists and scientists together, and how you can be part of it. 

For me, it was The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. The book tells the story of the life of Holly Sykes, from the 1980s to the 2040s. The final section, set in the 2040s – only 25 years away – talks of the havoc that seemingly small changes in climate can bring. A series of weather extremes in the wrong places can damage the social fabric enough to really change people’s lives.

I find it chilling because it’s so plausible, reminding us that this solid and stable world we have around us can change at any moment. Every tenth of a degree of warming increases the risk that we will be personally affected by the changing climate.

To me, the arts can clearly help tell the story of climate change in ways we can all understand. Can the arts help mobilise action on climate change, help us avoid the worst futures, and get us all heading for a carbon-free world?

Lots of people are concerned about climate change and want to see action: just look at the groundswell of demonstrations in New Zealand and around the world. But not so many people want to wade through the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and understand the details of the science. What we all want is connection, stories that will put the problem in human terms, that will make it relatable, not a bunch of graphs.

That’s where I think artistic expression has a lot of power. Storytelling is central to all of the arts, from music to painting to theatre and books.

Winning the 2018 Prime Minister’s Prize for science communication gave me some funds to help promote collaborations between the arts and the sciences, especially climate science. I plan to invest a large part of the prize money into running a workshop for artists and scientists, to bring creative practitioners together to tell new stories about the changing climate. These kinds of collaborations are developing in several countries and I would love to see the same happen here.

I’ve set up a project called “What if climate change was purple?” Artists and scientists can apply to be a part of it by going to this web site and putting in an expression of interest.

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Hurry, though, applications close on Friday October 4!

If your application is successful, the project will pay for you to come to Wellington for the workshop at the end of November, and will help support your work through 2020. At the workshop, we’ll look for a few natural pairings, perhaps a scientist who will work with an arts group to develop a public art work. Or maybe an artist who will work with a science research group, to develop ways of expressing what the research says about the climate system around us. Results of the collaborations will form part of an exhibition in 2021.

And where does the name come from? Part of the problem with climate change is that’s it’s being caused by the build-up in the air of a colourless, odourless gas. If we could see carbon dioxide, if it was purple for instance, we could see the air changing colour and getting murkier all the time. If climate change (carbon dioxide) really was purple, we would all be much more aware of it every day, and fixing the problem would be a priority for everyone.

If we can find artists who can take the science and make it purple, get it in front of our eyes in a way we can all see, that would give us all a new perspective and help to stop climate change in its tracks. The science tells us that every tenth of a degree of warming adds to the risks that undermine our way of life. To halt the warming at no more than 1.5C, we must act now and give it everything we’ve got. We must halve global emissions of carbon dioxide by 2030, and get to zero by 2050 – but by sharing ideas, working together, and telling stories about the future we want to see, we can do it.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.


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