CLIMATE CHANGE POETRY: IS IT EFFECTIVE?
by Eveline Pye
There have been several initiatives designed to encourage poets to write about climate change. Magma devoted an entire issue to climate change in 2018. Extinction Rebellion Oxford is currently soliciting poems about the climate emergency for an anthology to be published later this year. Grey Hen Press are running a series of poetry readings on climate change and donating all proceeds to the UK Youth Climate Coalition and the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) commissioned poetry for an online anthology on climate change. It seems likely that there will be even more initiatives. Simon Armitage, the new Poet Laureate, stated in an interview in May 2019, “I definitely want to initiate something on climate change. I think it is absolutely essential that poetry responds to that issue.”
This essay considers the effectiveness of existing climate change (CC) poetry in terms of its potential to bring about a change in knowledge, attitude or behaviour in the general reader. Poets with other goals may find the information contained within this essay useful in avoiding approaches which, research into climate change communication has shown, tend to have a negative effect on public engagement. There is also a brief description of the STEM poets group which supports informed writing on climate change.
It could be argued that poetry should be a pure art, independent of the attempt to change its reader’s attitudes or behaviour. Auden’s phrase, “poetry makes nothing happen”, is often quoted to justify this point of view. A little consideration reveals Auden’s statement as impossible to falsify. There are far too many inter-related factors to separate out the effect of one poem. However, it is also impossible to disprove the statement “conversation makes nothing happen” which most people would agree is untrue and, after all, poetry is only one particular type of communication. If one kind of communication can affect events then surely it must be true for the others. The most likely truth is that poetry makes nothing happen on its own. Reading or writing a poem never occurs in a vacuum but it can be one of many factors which help to change attitudes and, on some occasions this will translate into actual behaviour change.
Other poets complain of a tension between the desire to create a work of art and the desire to inform the reader and change attitudes. However, the poetry by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, inspired by the First World War, qualify as some of the most wonderful poems in the English language. Their scathing verses on the horrors of life in the trenches and the effects of mustard gas informed their readers about the reality of the war being fought in their name with a scathing clarity, and few would dispute their contribution to changing attitudes. Psychological research states that for messages to be attended to and responded to, the message must be clear, relevant and coherent. The work of the First World War poets fulfils all these requirements.
Let us consider the CC poetry available on the internet for its potential to inform, change attitudes or behaviour in the general population. A tremendous amount of uninspiring, poor quality verse is available on the web. A significant percentage can be immediately discounted as well-intentioned but harmless doggerel. A common mistake is to write about weather rather than climate. Climate is defined as “the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period”. Using this definition of climate, a poem which describes an individual storm without any reference to long-term trends is not a CC poem. Some CC verse on the internet spreads misinformation, though possibly with no deliberate intention to mislead. Another common error is to assume that all environmental issues are related to climate change. This is obviously not true. Many important environmental issues have no effect on climate. On occasion, CC poetry is excessively opaque, using symbolism in a way which allows many possible interpretations.While this can convey a sense of the complex nature of climatic variables, it is more likely to appeal to other poets and it may increase confusion in the general reader. Ideally , the average reader should accurately comprehend at least some of what the writer intends to express.
An online poetry publication on climate change has been selected to illustrate some of these issues. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a London based organisation committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges. They published 9 Original Poems on Climate Change in 2015 with The Climate Change Collaboration. Eight excellent poets were commissioned to write for this collection: Ruth Padel, Alice Oswald, Grace Nichols, Selina Nwulu, Tom Chivers, John Agard, Simon Barraclough, and one spoken word performer, George the Poet. This collection includes extremely good poems by very talented poets but most do not qualify as CC poetry. Others will be shown as likely to be ineffective or counter-productive in changing attitudes or behaviour when evaluated as climate change communication.
The following is a brief summary of the current guidelines for effective climate change communication, taking into account both government guidelines and independent research. It is based on the climate change awareness raising project in West Sussex undertaken as part of the EU funded ESPACE (European Spatial Planning: Adapting to Climate Events), DEFRA’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Communications Guide, Futerra’s Principles of Climate Change Communications and the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan: Third Report on Proposals and Policies 2018-2032.
These sources maintain that effective climate change communication should:
i) be clear, relevant and coherent avoiding references which are unlikely to be understood by the general public;
ii) not rely on evoking fear either for the reader or the next generation but should evoke positive emotions which support people’s internal sense of agency – the feeling that their actions are meaningful;
iii) not be overly strident as this increases the likelihood that the message will be discounted or ignored, and should avoid highlighting the difference between the reader’s attitude and actions since this is more likely to change their attitude than their actions;
iv) focus on past loss and the restoration of what has been lost, near-term benefits and opportunities to avoid future losses rather than apocalyptic scenarios;
v) help overcome negative associations and poverty attributions associated with actions we want to encourage such as buying second-hand furniture and clothes, drinking tap water and using public transport.
Returning to the online anthology, 9 Original Poems on Climate Change, Ruth Padel’s contribution, ‘Water is Company’, is a beautiful poem about drought with no explicit connection to climate change. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and globally water vapour increases by approximately 7% for every degree centigrade of warming. Regions that are already wet are likely to get wetter although dry regions will get drier. The rainfall in Scotland is increasing overall as a result of climate change although summers tend to be hotter and drier. As a result, a poem about drought in a collection on climate change, which does not reveal location, may confuse the reader rather than provide enlightenment.
Alice Oswald’s poem, ‘Alongside Beans’, describes the planting of beans and the subsequent miraculous process of growth in wonderfully evocative language. If there is a link with climate change, it is somewhat tenuous and too oblique for most readers. This poem does not fulfil the requirement that effective climate change communication should be clear and relevant.
The next two poems have minimal engagement with climate change. Grace Nichols’s poem, ‘Except for the Lone Wave’, is about pollution in the Atlantic Ocean, “the lone wave of rubbish – /old car tyres, plastic bottles,/styrofoam cups – /rightly tossed back/by an ocean’s moodswings”. This is a fine poem but there are no clear links in the poem between maritime pollution and climate change. Selina Nguwu’s poem, ‘We Have Everything We Need’, considers many aspects of modern urban life and only the following two lines out of twenty-nine have any obvious link to climate change; “I wonder what will this all look like in 50 years’ time./How will our cities exhale then?” The RSA’s own report The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: Introducing a New Way to Think, Talk, and Act (2015) explains that it is important to “differentiate it (climate change) from broader environmental concerns”. Several of the poems in this collection fail to successfully differentiate climate change from general environmental issues and do not make a clear distinction between CC poetry and ecopoetry. While all CC poetry can be classified as ecopoetry, the reverse is obviously not true since many environmental issues have no impact on the climate.
As previously stated, research stipulates that for climate change messages to be attended to and responded to, the message must be clear, relevant and coherent. So far, four poems out of the nine in the collection have failed to meet these basic criteria for effective climate change communication. These examples illustrate the general finding that many poems labelled as CC poetry have no clear link with climate change or contain little relevant material.
Tom Chiver’s poem, ‘Untitled’, is a dystopian vision of the future in which “stocks ran low/ we entered the mangroves at dusk,/trapped the spectacled caiman in his lair/and sucked his eyes for juju beans”. The internet yields many examples of CC poems with ‘end of the world’ or ‘face the terrible future’ scenarios. Poetry has always been concerned with evoking an emotional response, so it is perhaps understandable that some writers have chosen to attempt to provoke fear in the reader as a way to cut through complacency or denial.
The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) is a group comprised mainly of psychotherapists. They acknowledge that climate change “engenders fear, denial and despair” and that anxiety and feelings of helplessness are generated by the possibility of species extinction and even offer emotional support to those badly affected. In August 2017, the CPA published a poem by David Slattery, ‘When Autumn Came In Summer’. The final three lines are:
A sound to match and meet apocalyptic hooves.
A sound announcing the coming of the end of the world.
A sound that has fallen on deafened ears for far too long now.
The evocation of fear not only creates negative emotional outcomes for some people, but many researchers have also shown it to be ineffective. Susanne C. Moser , Social Science Research Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, is a leading expert on climate change communication. In The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (2011), she says, “Numerous studies have documented that audiences generally reject fear appeals (or their close cousin, guilt appeals) as manipulative. Conservative audiences – at least on climate change – have been shown to be particularly resistant to them”. She warns against the use of catastrophe frames, disaster imagery and apocalyptic imagery, such as that used in both Chiver’s and Slattery’s poems, since they do not bring about the long-term genuine engagement required for successful climate change mitigation.
DEFRA’s ‘Tomorrow’s Climate, Today’s Challenge Communication Guide (2006)’ advises communicators not to rely on human survival instincts and states that being ‘forced’ to deal with difficult emotions can be totally counter-productive as a long-term strategy. The guide advises great caution in the use of fear as a way of motivating the population and maintains that it should never be used without agency since fear can create apathy in individuals who have no agency to act upon the threat. This concurs with Susanne C. Moser’s conclusions. She says “Fear appeals or images of overwhelmingly big problems, without effective means to counter them, frequently result in denial,
numbing and apathy, i.e. reactions which control the unpleasant effects of fear rather than the actual threat”.
John Agard’s, ‘Inheritance’, is an excellent poem which exhorts the reader to consider the condition of the Earth and the children who will “inherit an earth whose rainforest lungs breathe a tale of waste”. This poem is clear and relevant to climate change but is not likely to be effective in contributing to a change in attitudes or behaviour . Futerra’s recommendations to DEFRA in ‘The Rules of the Game: Principles of Climate Change Communications’ document state that communicators should not rely solely on concern about our children’s future. Recent surveys show those without children may care more about climate change than those with children. After evaluating the available research, they conclude that, “The evidence base indicates, therefore, that relying on an automatic sense of intergenerational equity is unlikely to succeed”.
Only three of the nine poems in this collection meet the criteria for clear, relevant and coherent climate change communication which does not rely on generating either fear or evoking concern for the next generation, methods which have been dismissed by mainstream communicators, behaviour change experts and psychologists as ineffective. Two of the remaining poems were written by Simon Barraclough, ‘How’s My Coal’ in which a God-like voice assumes we are using solar as our main source of energy rather than depleting the Earth’s limited resources and ‘Polar Heart’ which portrays a love affair between the poles in which the North Pole melts. The last poem, George the Poet’s ‘A Climate for Change’, advises in a general way that we should pay attention to scientists and change our lifestyles.
The stated intention of the editors of this collection, Abi Stephenson and Jonathan Rowson, is to help “close that chasm between cognition and action” in climate change. However, even the three poems which meet most of the criteria for effective climate change communication fail to suggest any particular action which the reader should take to mitigate either climate change or the effects of climate change. The RSA’s own report ‘The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: Introducing a New Way to Think, Talk, and Act’ (2015) explains it is important to “clarify what it really means – for people, business and Governments – to act on climate change with conviction”.
A review of other collections available on the internet shows a similar pattern, even the most prestigious, 21 Poems on the Theme of Climate Change, curated by the former UK Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. This collection includes some wonderful poems beautifully read by famous actors but many don’t meet the criteria for effective CC poetry. ‘Causeway’ by Mathew Hollis, ‘Storm’ by Michael Longley and ‘Vertigo’ by Alice Oswald describe flooding, storms and rain. None of these poems have any overt link to climate change, not even a statement that these natural phenomena will be more common due to global warming. Others have no discernable link to climate change but do engage with environmental issues and would be better classified as ecopoetry. The collection also includes dystopian visions of the future, without any hope or positive vision, which have already been shown can be counter-productive.
Many poets choose to focus on an imagined future or write in a general or opaque way about climate change due to a quite understandable concern about their lack of scientific knowledge and worry over getting the science wrong. Doing their own research can be challenging and time consuming. The internet allows access to a flood of contradictory information. Even well-respected newspaper sites tend to ‘oversell’ the results of good quality research, glossing over its limitations in favour of an arresting headline. The original research itself is expensive to access and difficult to evaluate.
These problems can be minimised by writing about a branch of climate change where there is a general consensus, as in the following:
i) atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased to over 400 ppm, higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years;
ii) average global temperature is increasing, and projected to reach at least 1.5° to 2° warmer than 2000 levels by 2100 (0.2°C per decade);
iii) glaciers are retreating in almost all continents;
iv) summer ice cover in the Arctic is decreasing each year, with that region seeing the fastest average temperature increase.
The power of poetry in this context is to explore feelings about these changes in our world, to examine ambivalences and the conflicted nature of our responses. CC poetry should be memorable, universal, accessible, relevant and accurate, and (as with Owen and Sassoon) authoritative, based on lived experience and critical understanding. CC poetry should embrace the entire gamut of opinion, including those who doubt the accuracy of most of the predictions for the next 50 to 100 years, those who remain sceptical about the figures for species extinction and those who doubt our ability to control climate change and wish to focus on adaptation.
Writing about a branch of climate change where there is less consensus is more challenging. To illustrate the extent of this challenge, consider the poet who reads that the butterfly population is being adversely affected by climate change and wishes to check the veracity of this statement before using it in a poem. It turns out to be complex. Increased temperatures during spring and summer months have a positive effect, but higher winter temperatures and increased rainfall have negative effects, probably because unusually high temperatures in winter cause them to wake up too soon. Some species, like the painted lady butterfly, migrate and are unaffected by UK winter temperatures. Estimation of abundance is complicated by shifts in range with some species expanding their range to include Scotland. Although there is a clear long term decline in butterflies in the UK, it is difficult to assess the effect of climate change independent of changes in farming, forestry practices, urban development and pollution. It is perhaps not surprising that our hypothetical poet, wearied and confused, may choose not to write about the effect of climate change on the butterfly population. This is unfortunate. While it is correct to be concerned about spreading misinformation, and care should be taken about claims made, it is perfectly legitimate to acknowledge, indeed embrace, uncertainty, where it exists.
One attempt to ameliorate the reluctance of some poets to write about climate change has been to pair poets and scientists. This well-meaning endeavour has met with limited success. A few brief meetings of a poet with a scientist are unlikely to yield sufficient mutual understanding in the face of so much complexity and uncertainty unless the poet already has some scientific knowledge. It is perhaps surprising that more effort has not been made to pair established poets who already have scientific backgrounds, or a special interest in science, with climate change professionals, as this has more potential for success.
A new group has been established, called STEM poets, writers with a background, or special interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics. They support STEAM, a global initiative to introduce the arts within STEM education in order to encourage creativity and break down barriers between the arts and sciences. STEM poets believe it is important that readers are presented with factually correct and truthful STEM knowledge in works of imagination, specifically poems and short fiction, and wish to promote informed writing on climate change. They want to encourage more people to write about STEM subjects and will offer support and review of STEM content. A series of seminars, readings and workshops are planned for 2020, beginning with a seminar and a masterclass on climate change poetry to be held at the Scottish Writers Centre on 11th February and 25th February, respectively.
The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be held in Glasgow in November 2020. This event is the most high-profile climate change gathering since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015. It is expected to attract up to 200 world leaders for the final weekend and more than 30,000 delegates. Thus, there is a year for Scotland’s poets to establish an effective body of work for this event.
EVELINE PYE is a poet with a Masters in Psychology. She taught Research Methods and Statistics to undergraduate and postgraduate multi-disciplinary students at Glasgow Caledonian University for over twenty years and won the Boyd Prize for Achievement in Education. Her first collection was Smoke That Thunders (Mariscat Press, 2015). A new collection, STEAM, containing poems about the STEM subjects, will be published by Red Squirrel Press.
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Futerra (2005). ‘The Rules of the Game: Principles of Climate Change Communications’. https://stuffit.org/carbon/pdf-research/behaviourchange/ccc-rulesofthegame.pdf
RSA (2015). ‘9 Original Poems on Climate Change’. https://www.thersa.org/action-and-research/arc-news/9-original-poems-on-climate-change
RSA (2015). ‘The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: Introducing a New Way to Think, Talk, and Act’. https://www.thersa.org/action-and-research/rsa-projects/social-brain-centre/the-seven-dimensions-of-climate-change/about
Scottish Government (2018). ‘Climate Change Plan: The Third Report on Proposals and Policies, 2018-2032’. https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-governments-climate-change-plan-third-report-proposals-policies-2018-9781788516488/
Slattery, D. (2017). ‘When Autumn came in Summer’. https://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/explorations/poems/241-when-autumn-came-in-summer