Art and Climate: Making the Invisible Visible

On view in the Works on Paper Study Room, Saturdays and Sundays, December 31, 2016–February 5, 2017

Much of climate change is invisible to us. The “smoke” you see coming out of smokestacks is not carbon dioxide, which is transparent in visible light, but a combination of water droplets and soot. The trade-offs of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources are generally not discernible. And changes, particularly natural changes, occur so slowly that they can be difficult to observe directly. So, how can the reality of climate change, its impacts, and its solutions be communicated? The photographs in this installation make the invisible visible through a variety of means.

  • They play with interesting adjacencies, such as a sooty fire next to an oil well in Robert Adams’s Denver, 1974, or a field of wind turbines between sand dunes and a forest fire.
  • They use unusual vantage points, such as aerial perspectives of landscapes, or the dramatically low viewpoint of smokestacks in Michael Kenna’s The Rouge, Study 59.
  • They incorporate disconcerting cropping effects, such as the high-contrast presentation of a car factory, or the fragmentary view of coastal houses in Alexander Heilner’s Palm Jumeirah.

For those concerned about mitigating and adapting to climate change, we must ask how to make our climate system visible to all.

The photographs also challenge us to ask whether Earth’s environment and human civilizations are resilient or fragile—or both. Among the most fragile landscapes are our coastlines, because of sea level rise, and our cryosphere, because the icy parts of the Earth system fluctuate dramatically over decades and millennia. We make ourselves more susceptible to climate change by assuming that these landscapes are stable. What is unique about each landscape shown, in what ways do they change through time, and how do those shifts impact ecosystems and humans? The choice of these photographs is our argument that there is no single answer to these questions.


Catherine Riihimaki, Associate Director, Science Education, Council on Science and Technology

Veronica White, Curator of Academic Programs

Students in GEO 102 (Climate: Past, Present, and Future): Amanda Morrison ’19, Lila Currie ’18, Micaela Keller ’20, Grace Searle ’20, and Jenna Shaw ’20