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An Australian in Paris

An interview with Alexa Taylor about her experience of the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) on Climate Change held in Paris, December 2015.

What was the Climate Change Conference 2015  and what was agreed to at the close of the conference?

Last year Paris was host to the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) on Climate Change – a two-week conference seeking an international agreement to tackle human-generated climate change. The 196 countries agreed by consensus to aim for limiting the planet’s warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, ideally 1.5. This would be mean a drastic reduction in global emissions, and a goal of zero emissions in about 20 – 40 years time.

Alongside this, a global festival of cultural activity around climate change called ArtCOP21 (which featured over 550 arts events in over 50 countries), hosted a ten-day ‘Conference of Creative Parties’ and three day professional workshop in Paris to pull together artists, policy makers, and key arts and sustainability organisations in exploring the role of the arts in addressing the climate crisis. The aim was to take the conversation about climate change beyond a policy framework and actively engage citizens worldwide.


How important is it that countries sign and/ratify the agreement beginning this month?

Very. The signatures of at least 155 countries that are responsible for at least 55% of the world’s emissions are needed for the agreement to come into effect.  At the moment this has happened, though far fewer countries have ratified it.


What events did you attend? And why did you go?

I attended the ArtCOP21 Conference of Creative Parties; sections of its Professional Workshop; some civil society events around the COP; and countless exhibitions, public artworks, performances pieces, and creative events taking place around Paris as part of ArtCOP21. Highlights included a late night trip to Michael Pinsky’s Breaking the Surface with the artist; finding fellow Australians working in this field (including Shaun Gladwell, people from Melbourne’s Climarte, and last year’s Hatched winner Andrew Styan); and being part of the ‘red line’ action on the last day of the COP.

I went because I strongly believe that a cultural shift in our approach to climate change is essential if we are going to adequately address it, and that art and creativity can play a key role in this. I wanted see the creative work that people are doing around the world on this topic; to hear about the initiatives that arts organisations, NGOs, and governments have put in place around arts and climate change; to meet and make connections with people who are actively working in this field; to listen, be inspired, and learn. And, with a recently completed doctorate in Creative Arts and Sustainability behind me, to hopefully join the conversation, and gather ideas about what form this kind of work might take in Perth.


What was it like, the atmosphere of the conference, and out on the streets of Paris? 

It felt a little bit like everyone was holding their breath in anticipation of what might happen at the end of the COP. Beyond that, it was varied – a mix of too many things at once to capture here. At ArtCOP, there was a sense of determinedly getting on with things – that the work of the arts in this area must and will continue regardless of what the delegates of the COP decided (much like the determination we are seeing in Australia at the moment, that the work of artists must and will continue despite funding cuts!). In the streets, there was a sombre and tense feeling in a city shaken up by recent terrorist attacks. But there was also sense of hope in the possibility that a climate agreement might be formed. There was trepidation that the targets agreed to would not be ambitious enough; that the human rights of those most affected would be disregarded; that if an agreement was reached, civil society would see the problem as ‘solved’ and stop taking action. A sense of urgency and desperation, especially from people whose homes are being affected by climate change right now – and anger that the rest of the world was not listening. Excitement at seeing the same message carried by so many people, in so many different languages – and at the groundswell of support, absent since the 1999 failure of the Kyoto Protocol. And above all, a firm sense that the moment to take action was now, and that the world might finally be ready for it.


What do you think is the role of the arts in addressing climate change?

I don’t think there is one role – I think there are many different roles, all of which are important.

The arts can make a seemingly abstract concept like climate change real. They can give us the opportunity to feel things – and the importance of this is hard to underestimate when facing a problem that often seems too big, too abstract, and too systemically driven to emotionally (or even intellectually) respond to. They can give a human face or human story to what is often a handful of facts; or they can present those facts in a different form that provides a new way of understanding them.

They can make space for stories that don’t get told in the mainstream media. In Paris I was particularly moved by a session featuring artist Mel Chin, ethnographer Gretel Erlich, and the Inuit hunters from Greenland collaborating with them, about the making of The Arctic is Paris; and hearing Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a performance poet from the Marshall Islands. Seeing creative work by people whose homes are melting and by people whose homes are under water has changed the way I think about climate change – it’s shifted in my mind from being a future threat to something that is happening right now.

I think another deeply important role the arts can play in addressing climate change is to give us a glimpse that things could be different. Theatre is particularly good at this – part of the magic of performance is that for an hour or so, the ‘world’ that we are living in is the world on the stage. As audiences we listen to each other differently, suspend our disbelief, respond collectively (gasping, clapping, holding our breath), and consider the possibility that what is happening in front of us – however fantastical – could be real. Given the global scale of the climate crisis, it can be hard to imagine things changing (changing enough, changing in time). The arts can remind us that such changes could be possible.


How can we as individuals reduce our carbon footprint?  

Think about how to transform society (and our current economic and political systems) to be more socially equitable and ecologically responsible. And do it. Or at least make art about it.

(We can also do things like ride bikes, grow veggies, cook meals for each other, turn the lights off when we’re not in the room, and use the things we already have for longer before throwing them out. But what the COP and ArtCOP reminded me is that larger-scale changes are driven by individuals too).


Who in the arts is doing interesting things about this subject?

Many of the artists involved in ArtCOP21 – including MKA as part of Doppelgangster  – are worth a look. As well as the works I’ve mentioned, I was particularly taken by Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott’s Bureau of Linguistical Reality, Olafur Eiliasson’s IceWatch Paris, and Lucy and Jorge Orta’s Antarctica Passport.


Look out for what comes next from the UK’s Cape Farewell, France’s COAL, and Melbourne’s Climarte.


Image of COP Paris by Sonia Rolland, from Flickr.