Cultural organisations in unique position to engage audiences in climate change

Everyone is responsible for creating a more environmentally sustainable world and the arts and cultural sector is no exception. Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England provides a convincing argument in an article in The Guardian.

The arts have a leading role to play in tackling climate change

If we are to avoid irreversible global warming that will have devastating economic and social consequences for the world, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are required. This was the conclusion of a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in October. We – the collective “we” – have been given 12 years to arrest climate change. The message is clear: everyone is responsible for creating a more environmentally sustainable world. And the arts and cultural sector is no exception.

We have been talking about these issues at the Arts Council for a long time, and over the past decade have worked with the climate change charity Julie’s Bicycle to help arts and cultural organisations reduce their environmental impact. In 2012 we became the first cultural body in the world to include environmental reporting and action in our long-term funding agreements with arts organisations. Recognising that we had to create the conditions for change to happen, the Arts Council buttressed these requirements with a programme of support from Julie’s Bicycle. Together we substantially increased understanding about the role of the sector in addressing environmental issues and associated social challenges.

The findings of our Annual Report on Environmental Sustainability, published on Tuesday, prove the value of that intervention and show that commitment and creativity can bring inspiring results. In six years we have seen a 23% reduction in energy consumption and a corresponding 35% reduction in carbon emissions. Theatres, libraries, museums and concert halls of all sizes – in cities such as Birmingham, Exeter and London and across the country from Cumbria to the Thames estuary – are taking significant steps to highlight the issue in their programmes and improve their own environmental practice, installing solar panels, switching to energy-saving lightbulbs and reducing travel.

We have seen the power of encouraging the arts and cultural community to go on a collective journey. Several major city-wide initiatives have been developed, including the Manchester Arts Sustainability Team – a group of organisations working together to help deliver the city’s first-ever climate change strategy, Manchester: A Certain Future.

Arts and cultural companies possess significant purchasing power and can be instrumental in persuading suppliers to make ethical decisions and develop greener products and services. A quarter of our funded organisations are now on a green energy tariff, helping to drive demand for clean energy across the UK. Of course, the overall contribution made by the arts and cultural sector to energy conservation and carbon reduction is comparatively small. But for large parts of our audience it has become paramount that these institutions are setting an example in embracing and advocating for change.

Arts and culture make a vital contribution to the creation of a more inclusive and more confident society. They have the power to delight, educate, stimulate and inspire and, at a time of increasing division and inequality, we need their influence more than ever. As the IPCC report emphasised, the response to global warming must cover every aspect of life. We need action within the commercial sphere and engagement from the public. Artists and arts organisations can shape conversations about the environment. They can challenge and be provocative, both informing and opening our minds.

In recent years, there has been an overwhelming response from arts and cultural organisations eager to put this conversation centre stage. They are presenting a range of innovative projects that engage audiences in the issue of climate change. Last week, I visited Invisible Dust in Scarborough, which works with leading visual artists, creative technologists and scientists to encourage meaningful responses to environmental issues. In Kendal, Brewery Arts Centre showed Plastic on the Menu, highlighting issues around plastic in drinking water; a VR installation at Leicester’s Phoenix Arts Centre put audiences In the Eyes of the Animal to raise awareness of biodiversity in UK woodlands; and University of Cambridge Museums developed Operation Survival, in collaboration with Fire Hazard Games, a high-energy competition asking participants to come up with solutions for a world in crisis.

When it comes to the environment, time is fast running out. We have to accelerate our response to the threats. The arts has an important role in helping society to face up to the challenge of climate change and create a more sustainable future for us all.

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