The Art of Eli

Making Climate Media Creative — in the Extreme

‘More important than ever’ for today’s journalists covering climate change to ‘think creatively’ about how best to tell their stories. 

Journalist Eli Kintisch wants to get back to reporting and communicating on climate — the hard science, the findings, the research. But not in the way one might expect of a respected science reporter for one of the world’s most respected science journals … Science.

After communicating science in prose for a number of years — including in his well-regarded 2010 book on geoengineering, Hack the Planet — Kintisch has an expanded calling — to conceptualize and present climate science in a radically artsy way. That means sculpture, design, video, graphic art — a broad genre he calls “visual metaphor.” And he wants to play the role of fixer — or “producer, in the Hollywood sense,” as he puts it — in order to accomplish this unique marriage of fact and form.

Eli Kintisch, producer of a 21st century ‘whimsy’ mashup. 

It’s the goal of several projects he has in the works this year as part of a busy, year-long MIT Knight Science fellowship — including a capstone spring art exhibition.

Think Christo meets James Hansen, or Shephard Fairey and IPCC chief Rajenda Pachuari.

Kintisch’s vision is a 21st century mashup of wonkery and clever conceptual art, with a dash of “whimsy” — a word that comes up often in conversation with him.

“Everyone seems to agree that the story of climate change ought to be told in new and interesting ways,” Kintisch said in a recent interview with The Yale Forum. “Figuring out how to do this, and what the audience is, is the next step.”

His thinking about a new form of climate media began to take shape as he was flying back from Europe on a reporting trip for his book. On his mind, he says, were defensive, anti-warming geo-engineering schemes such as seeding the ocean with iron or putting sulfuric acid particles into the atmosphere — the kind of futuristic plans that have been debated as last-ditch efforts to alter Earth’s temperature artificially and help minimize adverse climate change impacts.

“I was drawn to geo-engineering because,” he said, “in addition to it being a hot area of science right now, it’s a kind of a crucible for a lot of the moral, technical, and science questions generally that we face right now.” With such thoughts on the brain, he saw the airplane’s “safety card” … and the rest, as they say, was pure quirky genius.

In collaboration with artist Benjamin Marra, Kintisch reengineered the conventional card, gave it a scientific makeover, and made it part of the packaging for Hack the Planet:

Climate, Art … and Pizza Confabs

A respected Science magazine writer, Kintisch has been spending his past year as something of a climate impresario. He spoke at the fall 2011 American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting; and he’s been hosting a series of funky “brainstorming” sessions in Cambridge, MA, that he’s calling “Climate/Art Pizza.” The goal is to bring artists and scientists together, and he says there are already some nascent projects brewing out of it. (The meetings are to run through spring.)

He’s also helping to co-teach a seminar in creative video presentation — an MIT course called “Cool Shorts: Climate Change on Web Video.” See this “short” for a taste of where he’s going:

Moreover, as part of a more extensive endeavor, he’s set up an organization and recruited a number of scientists and art/design-world professionals, laying the groundwork for an exhibition and contest titled “To Extremes: Public Art in a Changing World.” It’s set to open April 20 at MIT.

The project is unusual for a number of reasons, chiefly because it recommends use of a specific IPCC report — the November 2011 “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)” — as the wellspring of creative material. Kintisch has set up the contest so that a team of “science advisors” are on tap to consult with creative artists about subjects such as drought, migration, and floods.

The contest calls for “public artworks that explore, humanize, or visualize aspects of themes found in the report. These could include, but are in no way limited to, installations, murals, billboards, sculpture, light or sound work, etc.”

The IPCC, for its part, has already released this well-produced video to highlight some of the report’s findings and areas of concern:

Kintisch’s role overseeing the “To Extremes” project is that of “curator.” But to do this — and keep it going as an emerging genre — he’s trying to curate more than just one-off pieces. “I think we haven’t seen the best minds of our generation explore this creatively,” he said. “I hope to get a few of them.”

Earth’s Wonder and Whimsy

Ask Kintisch how future pieces of climate media might look, and he’s as likely to mention Picasso’s “Guernica” and visualizations by information artist Edward Tufte — the “da Vinci of data” — as path-breaking pieces such as This American Life‘s award-winning segment “The Giant Pool or Money” or John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

He cites the “Water is Rising” performance (see Yale Forum article here) by dancers from the imperiled Pacific island cultures of Kiribati, Tokelau, and Tuvalu as both an influence and “really moving experience” that underscores how, for many, art is more than just metaphor.

Kintisch also wants to see something along the lines of National Geographic‘s “Planet Earth” on climate issues. To him, this would mean media explorations as good as “there have been with genetics and with physics.”

“I haven’t seen it done justice, showing how all the pieces fit together,” Kintisch muses about climate change. “And this other idea of wonder and whimsy around how the planet works is missing.”

A Journalist Still… ‘Just a Creative One’ 

Of course, the idea of climate art is not brand new., for one, has documented the wide variety of creative projects that have been spawned — from photo exhibitions to performance art to music. One thread that has linked much “climate art” in the past, though, is that it has a strong activist bent.

Kintisch says, however, that he wants to remain a journalist — just a creative one. Of activists he knows, he says, “They see me as some sort of answer … But I come at it from a basic gut instinct that the facts and message are not getting across.”

He notes that the artistic drive to tap into mass consciousness through arresting design is not new in media history. “I want to emphasize that a big part of journalism has always been using new tools to reach broader audiences — from newsboys on the corner (“Extra, extra, read all about it”) to the evolution of giant headlines/photos, to early experiments with websites, to slide shows, podcasts, Twitter, Storify, Youtube, Vimeo, etc.,” he said.

“I just think on this story there’s a weird disconnect, and it’s more important than ever for climate journalists like me to think creatively about telling our stories.”

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail:, Twitter: @wihbey)
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One Response to Making Climate Media Creative — in the Extreme

  1. I am overwhelme­d that this may become Arnie Grape, and not Leonardo DiCaprio sharing this story.

    My “SCENIC” (old license plate motto) New Hampshire has 12 miles of coastline, capped with Seabrook Station.

    Some say NH’s Old Man collapsed, hearing rumors of fracking.

    The state of the planet is appalling, and so is the state of our ability to do something about it.

    Must I see oil rigs? “LI­VE FREE OR DIE”, is the current motto.