ArtCOP21: Insights and Action

​Whilst 38,000 delegates gathered at Le Bourget in Paris for the official COP21 climate negotiations, thousands more came together for side events, exhibitions and public artworks to bring the issue at the heart of the negotiations to life.

ArtCOP21 was a major festival of art and climate change that took place in the city and worldwide, curated by COAL (France) and Cape Farewell (UK). Their website documents 546 events in 54 countries that took place in the lead up to and during COP21. This immense, collective action undertaken by artists and creative organisations made the impacts and risks of climate change visible and tangible, connecting a much broader audience to the discussion.

On 3rd and 4th December, Julie’s Bicycle, together with COAL, On the Move, IFACCA and Cape Farewell hosted a Professional Workshop for over 150 artists, collectives, cultural leaders, funding bodies and private foundations, networks, cities, regions and advocacy groups from over 30 countries and five continents, to address the role culture is playing in change, and identify recommendations to policymakers to acknowledge, support and scale up the innovation and best practice being developed.

Together we articulated key issues and actions to take us forward in a unified movement for change.


The risk of defining a limited role for culture and creative industries in addressing climate change was challenged by almost every session in the programme.

Speakers identified how cities are putting culture at the heart of “greening” initiatives; artists are making work that connects deeply to the emotional and existential complexity of the issue; artist collectives are leading on conservation, new creative practices and models for making and implementing change through socially-engaged work; artist-activists are holding businesses to account on pollution and deforestation; organisations are providing the tools, resources and inspiration to support artists and businesses to adopt low carbon operational practices; networks are connecting disciplines and articulating new business models; and funding bodies are implementing policies to enable longer-term financial relationships and frameworks for measurable greenhouse gas reduction.

In short, real social, economic and of course environmental solutions and value generated at all levels. So, art and culture was revealed as not only a vehicle through which climate science could be heard, felt and understood, but also a movement for tangible change in our culture, values and practices.

Breaking Down Silos

In a global discussion, language became a problematic no-mans-land. Immediately terminology like “sustainable development” and “projects” were flagged by those from the global south as a burden with conflicting associations. We recognised a need to find a new language for the climate change challenge that acknowledged the equal value of all stakeholders, and particularly respected the contributions of “indigenous knowledge” alongside scientific, or other kinds of knowledge.

Diversity and context were major drivers that influenced the nature of how artists and organisations responded to climate change and the immediate environmental challenges on the ground, from natural disasters and change landscapes due to hydro-electric power dams, to greenhouse gas accounting and energy efficiency. As such, top-down and siloed approaches to change and problem-solving are rarely fruitful. The most successful initiatives, artworks and policy interventions brought together civic, artistic, business and political stakeholders in a balanced partnership. They embodied the foundations of trust, humility and collaboration that are fundamental to any successful long-term movement.

Interdisciplinary and cross-industrial partnerships – i.e. working with people who think and work differently – were also common, and also produced the most useful tools and resources to inspire and inform action. There was a need for more locally-relevant resources to be adapted and translated to broaden access to support and quality information

A Shared Narrative

Whilst a multitude of amazing responses are emerging every day from the creative community, we lack a shared narrative to articulate the value and importance of what constitutes a major global movement contributing to environmental sustainability and sustainable development. This is a case-making tool but also a story of change that can galvanise and inspire further action and shifts in values and thinking. It needs research, and it needs evaluation data, that can legitimise and communicate our impact to the people we seek to influence most.

This narrative, were we to pin it down, would reveal a long term vision and supporting policy frameworks which recognise the immediate urgency of greenhouse gas emission reductions and the importance of shifting values, practices and systems – like how we consume energy and make purchasing decisions, or how we take on a "care taking" role of stewardship for land and other species – which are longer term challenges. It would address the specific role of culture in the global sustainable development discourse, marked by our failure to secure a sustainable development goal for culture.

There is a leadership role for cultural policymakers and funding bodies worldwide to address this need. Some work is being done, documented in the research we did with IFACCA, which formed the backbone of the ArtCOP21 Professional Workshop programme, but it’s not nearly as well-informed or comprehensive as it could be. The examples that do exist are inspiring, from the Zimbabwe Culture Fund seeking to re-create a value system for rural communities through a craft-based economy, to Arts Council England’s world-first environmental reporting programme.

In each case, policy approaches have been co-created with those they are designed to support, meeting genuine needs through tried and tested tools, resources and/or working models. They are grounded in the integrity of creating sustainable business models that act as platforms for artists to be able to speak out with confidence. And they all seek to develop “human capabilities for transformation and a new knowledge for experimentation” (Patrick Degeorge, French Ministry of Ecology).

The resounding call to action from Degeorge reminded us that there is only so far we can go within what we know as “business as usual” – soon we are going to have to be brave, put down the rule book and start thinking and experimenting way beyond our comfort zone. We don’t have to do it alone – the process is more fun and a lot more creative with colleagues and collaborators, but we must go there if we are to stand a chance of rethinking our relationship to the planet, our economy, and each other.

Sustaining Creativity