In Copenhagen, Denmark, the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) opened on December 7th, 2009 at the Bella Center located in central Copenhagen. Some 18,000 delegates from nearly 200 nations attended the international summit, which ended in complete failure on December 18th. The summit was ostensibly held to bring about a new international treaty to help reduce global warming, but it quickly broke down into a standoff between wealthy industrialized nations - who wish to preserve their dominance over world economic resources, and the less developed nations on earth - who seek parity and environmental justice.
But this article is not about the political machinations that took place around the COP15 summit, there are plenty of news sources to follow for that side of the story. My intention here is to write about how artists responded to the Copenhagen summit and the growing threat of climate change. Hundreds of artists in and around Copenhagen produced works ranging from posters and sculptures to light shows, street theater, and installations - all designed to draw attention to the climate crisis and ways to end it. People’s Climate Action and Illumenarts are but two of the Danish groups that organized multiple public art interventions and cultural events in Copenhagen – there were many others. The Telegraph has an online slideshow of 28 photographs depicting just some of the many public inventive art interventions that took place during COP15.
British artists Mark Coreth and Duncan Hamilton positioned their collaborative ice sculpture in Kongens Nytorv Square, close to the Bella Center. To create their sculpture the artists first cast in bronze a polar bear skeleton they sculpted by hand. The metal armature was then submerged in water that was frozen to produce a nine-ton block of ice - from which point the sculptors went to work carving out a realistic life-sized polar bear. Over the course of the COP15 summit the ice slowly melted, exposing the skeletonized bear.
The artists encouraged people to touch their ice bear sculpture since the collective handling contributed to the statue melting away - a simple demonstration of how humans are directly shaping the environment. In the words of sculptor Mark Coreth: “When the skeleton begins to appear, it’s going to become terrifying. When the bronze appears, it is going to take warmth through the skeleton and melt that ice even more. That is akin to a lack of ice in the arctic north… the deep, dark ocean absorbs heat and continues to melt it.” The ice bear project was funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a major environmental organization that also displayed photographs of the Arctic at their Arctic Program Tent set up in Copenhagen for COP15. The WWF also maintains a webpage on the ice bear project.
There were more complicated and independently produced projects carried out by the Danish realist sculptor Jens Galschiøt, who placed a number of large cast metal sculptures on the streets of Copenhagen for the COP15 summit. A self-taught sculptor who has been working at his discipline since 1985, Galschiøt’s figurative realist creations are striking, but they are meant to do more than just please viewers with a heightened sensitivity to beauty; here aesthetics are mixed with the compulsion to move people to well considered thought and action. In other words, Galschiøt wants us to change the world. He does not eschew skill, craft, or high art aesthetics - making him an artist after my own heart.
In 1992 Galschiøt and fellow sculptor Lars Calmar collaborated on creating a work they titled, Survival Of The Fattest, a nearly life-sized statue cast in copper. The work depicts a colossally overweight European Justitia (the goddess of justice), holding the scales of justice in her right hand - being carried on the shoulders of a starving African man. Galschiøt has said that the sculpture represents the “self-righteousness of the rich world,” which sits on the backs of the poor while “pretending to exert justice.” Since its creation the sculpture has been shown at a number of mass public events.
Survival Of The Fattest was placed in Copenhagen harbor at Langelinie next to the internationally famous landmark statue, The Little Mermaid. Based on a fairy tale by the Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen and created by Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksen in 1913, The Little Mermaid is a national monument seen by an estimated 1 million tourists a year.
In placing his sculpture in the water next to Eriksen’s famous bronze, Galschiøt was assured that his creation - and its explosive message - would receive international attention. The act also brilliantly juxtaposed a fairy tale against the cold and undeniable reality depicted in Galschiøt’s artwork; as if the artist were pronouncing the goals and objectives of the wealthy nations at the Climate Change Conference to be nothing more than fairy tales.
The contradictions Galschiøt alluded to with his Survival Of The Fattest sculpture were made obvious on Dec. 16, when the Obama administration announced at the Copenhagen summit that it would commit $1 billion over the next three years “towards slowing, halting and eventually reversing deforestation in developing countries.” In making the announcement, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack averred; “Protecting the world’s forests is not a luxury - it is a necessity.”
By comparison, Mr. Obama’s other “necessity” - sending an additional 30,000 combat troops to the escalating war in Afghanistan, will cost between $30 and $35 billion per year according to Pentagon estimates; or around $2.5 billion a month. That is no doubt a low estimate.
When President Obama was deliberating on his Afghan war escalation, the Office of Management and Budget sent him a memo estimating that the cost of increased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan over the next 10 years would be $1 trillion - a figure that apparently did not dissuade Mr. Obama from intensifying the war.
One of the other sculptural works by Galschiøt that made an appearance in Copenhagen for the COP15 summit was, The Hunger March. In 2002 the artist sculpted and had cast in copper, a number of life-sized figures of emaciated young African men.
Since their creation the figures - numbering 27 in all - were displayed on the streets during the World Trade Organization summit in Hong Kong (2005), and on the streets of Athens, Greece, during the European Social Forum (2006).
For the Copenhagen summit Galschiøt changed the name of his sculptural group to, The Pulse of the Earth. Gaining permission from the Bella Center in advance, the artist had the 27 copper statues placed in the water pond at the center’s metro station, illuminating the architectural backdrop with a special installation of pulsating red LED lights. According to Galschiøt, the pulse of the light-installations represented the very heartbeat of the planet.
The Pulse of the Earth statues at COP15 represent “Climate Refugees,” those people who are forced to flee their home or country because of drought, desertification, the sea level rising, or other environmental disasters linked to global warming and climate change. When contemplating the desolate tableau Galschiøt setup in the Bella Center water pond, I found it difficult not to think of the tiny Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu, located in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Hawaii. In 2002 Tuvalu became the first nation to evacuate part of its population because of sea level rising.
Ian Fry, the chief delegate for Tuvalu at the COP15 summit, delivered a speech at the conference that was an appeal for a binding international agreement to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Expressing the frustration felt by billions of people around the planet, particularly those who live in undeveloped poor nations, Fry noted that “the fate of the world is being determined by some senators in the U.S. Congress.”
Choking back tears, Mr. Fry concluded his speech by addressing the summit and the people of the world, saying - “The fate of my country rests in your hands.”
On the last day of the summit President Obama addressed the conference. Scientists have been saying that in order to avoid climate disaster, developed nations needed to reduce their green house gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2020 - in his speech Obama only offered cuts “in the range of 17 percent.”
There were immediate angry responses to Mr. Obama’s speech. The Executive Director of Greenpeace U.S.A., Phil Radford, said Mr. Obama “now risks being branded as the man who killed Copenhagen.” The President of Friends of the Earth said; “President Obama’s rhetoric is empty. The U.S. has failed to significantly improve upon the weak position it brought to these talks.” The Director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, Kassie Siegal, said; “Obama the President is, when it comes to actual actions on climate, far closer to President Bush than Candidate Obama.”
The COP15 summit ended in disaster, scuttled by greed and the narrow self-interests of the world’s biggest polluters. The so-called “Copenhagen Accord” was pieced together by Mr. Obama between the U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. It was forced through by the summit chair, who according to the Associated Press; “gaveled in a compromise decision to ‘take note’ of the agreement, instead of formally approving it. Experts said that still meant the accord could go into effect.” Mr. Obama effectively kept the majority of dissenting nations out of the negotiations while to all intents and purposes forming the alliance of major polluters who would hammer out the pact.
Mr. Obama called the final 12-paragraph Copenhagen Accord document an “unprecedented breakthrough” and a “meaningful agreement.” What a laughable statement! The accord makes no mention of a target date for the creation of a legally binding climate treaty, it provides no target dates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it provides no verification or enforcement mechanisms. In short it is a toothless and unenforceable document.
The Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, said the accord included so many loopholes that “you could fly an airplane through it - Airforce One, for example.”
Artists and designers played a significant role during the COP15 summit, and they will continue to do so in its aftermath. There is unquestionably much work ahead, and the creative community has an important part to play, not just in keeping the issue of climate change before the public, but in arousing the consciousness of the people and spurring them to constructive action.