Everyone has a story. More and more, those stories reveal the everyday impacts of climate change on local communities. They expose our vulnerabilities, weak spots in the socio-environmental interface, and our ability to rise above these challenges to create new opportunities for action. Rising, a multimedia exhibit of climate change in North Carolina, showcases these vulnerabilities and opportunities by combining oral histories with soaring aerial photography.
Inspired by a flight over the North Carolina coast, photographer Baxter Miller got together a group of community activists, local nonprofits, and academics to create a new tool for communicating climate change. Her idea was to pair dramatic photos of the shifting landscape with stories by the people experiencing those changes. The team received a community collaborative research grant from North Carolina Sea Grant and the William R. Kenan Jr. Institute for Engineering, Technology, and Science based at North Carolina State University to bring their vision to life.
Their first exhibit opened on February 16 at the Center for the Study of the American South at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rising directly addresses climate change, specifically the impacts that threaten coastal communities and their economies by elevating the voices of North Carolina’s coastal residents – from fishermen to lifelong residents. The exhibit tries to transcend current challenges in communicating climate change by relying on personal stories and vibrant art to create a shared, emotional connection among viewers.1 For those who can’t make it to Chapel Hill, the exhibit travels eastward to a coastal location in the state later this summer, and anyone can follow along online through Facebook and Instagram.
Rising does what many other climate change projects fail to do: speak to people’s deeper humanity in ways that connect with our strongest values.2 Communicating climate change isn’t as simple as sharing the science; in fact, the more people know about climate change, the more they tend to become entrenched in their original positive or negative opinions.3 Rising overcomes this divide by showing climate change in a whole new light, calling upon personal stories and visual artifacts to show not tell. It uses stories to connect to community identities and relational values in a positive manner, emphasizing the personal relevance of climate change and potential responses.4 Miller, in a NC Sea Grant news release, sums up the goal of Rising by saying, “My hope is that it will provide an alternative lens through which to engage in conversation about whether my home region’s fate will be one of loss or continued resilience.”
While deeply place-based and personal, communities around the world could easily replicate the project. Drones, fast becoming an effective tool for many forms of science, have made aerial photography more cost-effective and anyone with a smartphone can start collecting stories from the people around them (for more guidance, check out these guides from The Smithsonian and StoryCorps). The impact of this type of project depends less on technology, though, and more on who gets involved. The stories will only be powerful if they represent real lived experiences and will only resonate with a wide audience if they represent diverse viewpoints. The organizers need to be established within the community or have an enhanced understanding of what stories might be available (and how) for the project to be successful. As a storyteller herself, Miller understood this hurdle and took careful measures in creating a team that could uncover the rich tapestry of life represented in the Rising exhibit.
How many people see the exhibit also enhances its overall impact. The traveling and social media aspects of Rising try to do this, but subsequent projects could increase visibility by having similar exhibits at schools, inviting important public figures/dignitaries, and/or by making it more interactive, such as collecting new stories at the exhibit or by using music. For many, a multimedia exhibit like Rising may represent the first time they see climate change as a human issue rather than a scientific question of data, models, and uncertainty.
“All good science is art,” reasoned English novelist John Fowles, followed closely by the idea underpinning this act of climate optimism: “And all good art is science.”
- Corbett, J. B. and B. Clark. 2017. The arts and humanities in climate change engagement. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Retrieved 18 Mar. 2018.
- Corner, A., Markowitz, E., and N. Pidgeon. 2014. Public engagement with climate change: the role of human values. WIREs Clim Change 5: 411-422.
- Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., and G. Mandel. 2012. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2: 732.
- O’Neill, S., and S. Nicholson-Cole. 2009. “Fear won’t do it”: Promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations. Science Communication 30(3):355-379.
Special thanks to Baxter Miller and the Rising team for permission to use their photos in this post!