LSC researchers find art can change attitudes toward climate change

LSC Assistant Professor Nan Li.

A recent Communications Earth & Environment publication in Nature led by Life Sciences Communication (LSC) Assistant Professor Nan Li delves into the possible use of visual art to bridge the political divide over climate change. Current research on the intersection of art and science communication is lacking, but Li and her co-authors’ findings demonstrate the strides LSC researchers take to propel this line of research forward.

Li’s research looks for ways to “revamp the visual language of climate change.” Revamping involves transitioning from a “doom and gloom” perspective and sole reliance on numerical and verbal information in climate change communication. Nonverbal languages, such as visual art, can help achieve this.

Summer Heat, 2020. Created by Diane Burko.

The study examined the effects of an art piece by environmental artist Diane Burko depicting melting glaciers and a heat wave over Europe. Li and co-authors LSC Professor Dominique Brossard, Thomas Jilk, Brianna Rae Van Matre, and Isabel Villanueva manipulated the original art piece artistically and scientifically by adding scientific details to the Keeling curve graph, which denotes increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Using the manipulated Keeling curve alone and juxtaposed with the background, as well as the original painting, they asked participants about their political ideologies, pre-existing beliefs concerning climate change, and levels of interest in art. By doing this, the researchers aimed to measure if visual art is an effective way to communicate climate change.

Fig. 1: Stand-alone images used to prompt reflection and gauge evoked emotions.

One of the most important findings of the study is that exposure to the artwork caused more positive emotions than the data graphs. “I think arts’ power really stems from the fact that it can trigger those mixed feelings [anxious and hopeful] and enable people to reflect on the meaning of the art and on the meaning of these scientific issues without adopting a top-down approach,” Li says.

Yet another finding from the study indicates that showing people art while asking them to reflect on the meaning of art before telling them the art is communicating climate change narrows the perceived relevance of climate change between participants with different political ideologies. Specifically, researchers observed a narrower opinion gap regarding climate change between liberals and conservatives who viewed art compared to those who just saw data graphs.

Li says these findings are inspirational, especially regarding communicating visual climate change information with those who may be less likely to engage with the issue. Looking to the future, expanding science communication from its usual rhetoric to more accessible varieties like visual art may allow it to reach a wider audience. This audience may include underserved communities such as individuals with visual or hearing disabilities, populations with less education, and communities without access to mainstream science communication outlets such as museums.

“The findings of the study provide impactful evidence for future researchers and practitioners to reference when looking to use visual communication in informing the public on a science-related topic. It expands on viewing art and science as both interdisciplinary and co-dependent fields. I am thrilled to see LSC at the forefront of this exciting line of research,” says Dominique Brossard, LSC professor and chair.



Written by: Sarah Matysiak, LSC B.S. ’24 and LSC’s 2023-2024 Lenore Landry Scholar
Published: October 2023