Science and Society
Art and Science
Written by Kathleen Whitlock, PhD
November 15, 2022
Like many, I initially watched in horror as young protesters hurled tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London, on Oct. 14. This was then followed by vegetable soup on "The Sower" (also Van Gogh) in Rome, and mashed potatoes on a painting from Monet’s “Haystacks” series in Germany (1). Many, but not all of the actions have been carried out by the group Just Stop Oil who according to their web site “ … demand that the UK government makes a statement that it will immediately halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.” (https://juststopoil.org/faqs/). These acts are part of the struggle against the focus on the cost of action and not the cost of inaction i.e. the economic costs of weaning ourselves off oil as opposed to the real costs of letting the climate spin out of control. As I contemplated these acts against culture my feelings changed from horror to admiration, and these young people caused me to question “value”.
But why support these acts against culture, against beauty, against history? In 1988 James Hansen, at the time head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told a USA Senate committee “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now” (2). By this time some people already considered that legislating the problem of the “greenhouse effect” was a threat to economic growth (3). The politic-economic machine was put in motion, a machine that promoted false information about the severity and potential deleterious effects of climate change.
But now, as the young people fight to capture our attention, the brutal realities of climate change are coming to light, specifically that the situation is worse than we have been led to believe. We have been told again and again that if we can just limit warming to 1.5 Celsius the potential exists to control the damage, but to do so we would need to reach net zero CO2 emissions globally within the next 30 years (around 2050) while also making large reductions of non-CO2 emissions, particularly methane (4). This past week in several news releases scientists are now telling us that “even though the warming itself is very much in line with model projections, …many of the impacts of climate change such as increased weather extremes are now playing out faster than predicted” (Michael E Mann, climatologist, Pennsylvania University), and that “without doubt, extreme weather events, amplified by global warming, are coming faster than predicted and are more severe than predicted” (Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany.
As I write, just yesterday, the Secretary General of the United Nations used the term “Climate Carnage”… I urge everyone to watch the video on the website
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2022/nov/03/cop27-the-climate-carnage-weve-faced-this-year-video and think about the woman who says: “No one has come to rescue us”. Right now I assume most of the readers (including myself) do not include themselves in the “us”, and most likely do not include all the species with which we share this planet in the “us”.
These events have taken place in the days leading up to the Conference of the Parties (Cop)27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. COP is the annual summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) made up of 196 countries including the European Union. The meeting opened with Antonio Guterres telling world leaders that “We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing … our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible” and that “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”
Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, speaking from the frontline of global emergencies, described raging torrents that washed away 4M acres of standing crops, destroyed thousands of kilometers of roads and railway tracks, and ravaged all of the four corners of his country. His talk highlighted a principle theme of COP27: loss and damage or how to help countries affected by the devastating impacts of the climate crisis that they cannot adapt to, or protect themselves against. The argument follows that it is only just that the rich countries, source of most greenhouse gas emissions, provide assistance to the poor that are most afflicted. Most experts think that a final settlement on loss and damage will not be reached. The irony of the ‘loss and damage’ focus is the sheer number of oil and gas lobbyists at COP27: more than delegates from the most vulnerable countries
A very interesting aspect of Cop27 is the questioning of the roles of The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and other entities created at the end of the second world war. The world has changed: 21st-century issues such as climate justice were not contemplated in the mid-20th century.
Today I stared at the young people I teach and meditated on the probability that when they are my age, if we continue with “business as usual” they could be fighting over food. Today I made an official call to the University of Valparaiso requesting that the university generate a declaration, a declaration recognizing that we are in a worldwide emergency. I suggested as part of the emergency we hold meetings this summer to reorganize the coming academic year to work toward “adaptation”.
In closing, I would like to recognize the Committee for Sustainability of the International Zebrafish Society and thank them for their motivation and commitment, for guiding us in the process of contemplating our actions. And, I thank the young people who “attacked” famous works of art and forced me to seriously question the value of an object, and the value of life.