Climate Artist Shines Light on Dirty Politics

Tuesday, January 3, 2012 (Listed under Environment)

We know that scientists influence society in powerful ways. On December 14th, 2011, Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) addressed Congress and reminded America not only of the debt we owe scientists for their steadfast commitment to cures and innovation, but also the reliance we have always placed on their research and findings.

To paraphrase Senator Franken: “Scientists engineer life-saving drugs, like antibiotics, drill potable drinking wells and save billions of lives with high-yield, disease-resistance crops. They even delivered man to the moon, in 1969, and returned them home safely.”

Their fact-filled, hour conversation focused heavily on a more recent development; namely, that scientists worldwide concur that climate change is a serious issue and that it's largely the result of human activity. The American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Meteorological Society and NASA's own Senior Climate Expert, James Hansen, all agree that if we fail to address climate change and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase, the landscape of the planet will inalterably change. Examples of the panoramic shifts include sea level rise and the associated loss of coastal property; shrinking access to safe drinking water; increased global tensions as refugees seek new homelands and increasingly severe weather, further threatening human life and disrupting communications. This is not hyperbole. These are the facts, as supported by our own Department of Defense.

So, with so much at stake, many wonder why climate obstructionists continue to cast such persistent doubt on the consensus of climate scientists. What amount of money can be worth undermining the very planet that supports us? Apparently, far beyond the many hundreds of millions of dollars, which is what Exxon Mobil, the Koch brothers, and the American Petroleum Institute “invested,” between 1999 and 2010, to confuse and derail the climate change conversation. And, it's not just the hired guns of the fossil fuel industry that interfere with environmental initiatives. Often, the resistance comes from politicians, whose campaigns are heavily funded by fossil fuel super PACs.

Operating behind the scenes, the Canadian government, which is emerging as an agressive oil producer and exporter, recently interfered in an environmental art show focusing on the work of climate change artist and activist, Franke James. A colorful graphic essay by James, entitled, “Dear Prime Minister” appears to be at the heart of the controversy. In it, James proposes that a sensible energy policy that taxes polluters and results in a cleaner, more livable environment would be a legacy that Harper and Canada could be proud of. James writes, “Canada's economy is built on natural resources. If we manage them wisely we could be the ENVY of the world.” Although hardly heretical, and softened with lively, whimsical imagery, James nevertheless has been criticized by government officials for her so-called “dissenting views.” Speaking with me today, James explains that after receiving the verbal commitment, in May, 2011, that funding for the European Tour of her work would be forthcoming, the show's organizer, Croatian-based Nektarina, was informed that James would receive no money or support from the Canadian government.

“The word was out,” James laments, “and at that point my artwork and my message were essentially blacklisted by my own government. Sponsors backed out and a remarkable career opportunity was lost.”

Though the Canadian government denied to the media that they had initially granted financial support for James's show, only then to withdraw it, internal government emails obtained under an Access to Information Request by James show that government funding was approved internally and then killed by the Climate Change office of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Moreover, the emails indicate that the reason for withdrawing support for the show was not a lack of funding, but, rather, the view that such a show “would run counter to Canada's interests.”

“Why would the Harper Government want to shut down my art show?” James asks rhetorically. “My art show was going to happen at an inconvenient time for the Harper government. Europeans were negotiating the EU Fuel Directive, which could label Canada's oil sands as “dirty oil”— so the last thing they wanted was to raise awareness about the tar sands in Alberta. My message is not in sync with the Harper government message, which is to ‘greenwash' dirty oil.”

James believes that the Harper Administration's withdrawal of funding and cagey gamesmanship amounts to censorship: “It's bad enough that fossil fuel executives continue to dominate headlines and the airwaves with their misinformation and contempt for science, but when an artist like myself is bullied by her own government, one has to wonder which is worse,” James said.

Not to be deterred, James received assistance through social media. Collin Mutchler, a well-respected digital strategist and co-founder of LoudSauce, suggested an art show a bit closer to home. The result? A masterfully engaging and provocative visual series, entitled, "Banned on the Hill." In November, 2011, James's eye-catching posters occupied advertising space around the corner from Parliament Hill, where Prime Minister Harper couldn't help but see them. Her graphic messages were simple and direct. One read: "Stop blacklisting our environmental messengers. Artists and scientists are the planet's early warning systems!" For a look at James's powerful poster campaign, croudfunded by LoudSauce, check out James's site.

As is always the case when I read James's graphic essays and marvel at her fresh, bold talent, I conclude that she's one messenger that leaders will want to listen to—if not today, then soon. James makes environmental awareness almost inevitable, as she taps our better nature. Seemingly jumping off the canvas, James's works never fail to entertain, educate and inspire her audience.

With the arrival of 2012, rather than allowing ourselves to be enticed by slick advertising designed to position oil, gas and coal as society's best hope for a bouyant 21st century economy, let's commit to supporting the credentialed messages of hard-working scientists, researchers, writers and artists, whose motives and goals are typically very straight forward. Let's not shy away from holding accountable those who seek to gain enormous wealth at the expense of our health, our environment and a sustainable future. Turn off (or mute!) the ANGA, Exxon, Chevron and America's Power ads. Then, Occupy your Town, City or State and be counted. You'll be in good company!


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