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WIREs Clim Change
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Climate change and the imagination

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This review article surveys the complex terrain of the imagination as a way of understanding and exploring the manifestations of anthropogenic climate change in culture and society. Imagination here is understood as a way of seeing, sensing, thinking, and dreaming that creates the conditions for material interventions in, and political sensibilities of the world. It draws upon literary, filmic, and creative arts practices to argue that imaginative practices from the arts and humanities play a critical role in thinking through our representations of environmental change and offer strategies for developing diverse forms of environmental understanding from scenario building to metaphorical, ethical, and material investigations. The interplay between scientific practices and imaginative forms is also addressed. Thematically, this review addresses the modalities of climate futures, adaptive strategies, and practices of climate science in its study of key imaginative framings of climate change. WIREs Clim Change 2011 2 516–534 DOI: 10.1002/wcc.117

Figure 1.

Soylent Green film poster, dir. Richard Fleischer (1973).

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Figure 2.

Flock House, Mary Mattingly et al. 2010.

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Figure 3.

Flock House, Mary Mattingly et al. 2010.

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Figure 4.

Flock House (detail), Mary Mattingly et al. 2010.

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Figure 5.

Survivaball, Yes Men et al. (2006).

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Figure 6.

The night between Christmas Day and Boxing Day in Kuivasjärvi My Weather Diary, Jari Silosmaki 2001–2007.

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Figure 7.

Caribou Migration I, Oil and The Caribou, Subhanker Banerjee, 2002. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the core calving area of the Porcupine River caribou herd. It is also the most debated public land in the US history—whether to open up this land to oil and gas development or to preserve it has been raging in the halls of the US Congress for over 30 years. This caribou herd has symbolized the Arctic Refuge—both for its ecological and cultural significance. Individual caribou from this herd may travel more than 3000 miles during their yearly movements, making it one of the longest terrestrial migrations of any land animal on the planet. Numerous indigenous communities living within the range of the herd have depended on the caribou for subsistence food. The Gwich'in are caribou people. To open up the caribou calving ground to oil and gas development is a human‐rights issue for the Gwich'in Nation. In addition to the perceived threat of oil development in their calving ground, this caribou herd has been severely impacted by climate change in recent years.

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Figure 8.

Nikolai Shalugin, Yukaghir and The Climate, Subhanker Banerjee, 2007. The Yukaghir people of Nelemnoye in the Verkne Kolymsk region (upper Kolyma River) primarily depend on subsistence hunting and fishing. Climate change as predicted by the scientific community may have severe impact on the local fish and thereby on the Yukaghir culture. Decreased abundance and local and global extinctions of arctic‐adapted fish species are projected for this century. Southernmost species are projected to shift northward, competing with northern species for resources. Yukaghir culture is the oldest and most endangered indigenous community in Siberia.

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Figure 9.

At the Corral‐Ilya Golikov, Nikolayev Matvey and Osennia Dariya Mikhailevna, Even and The Climate, Subhanker Banerjee, 2007. Caribou (North American forms of Rangifer tarandus) and reindeer (Eurasian forms of the same species) are of primary importance to people throughout the Arctic for food, shelter, fuel, tools, and other cultural items. Caribou and reindeer herds depend on the availability of abundant tundra vegetation and good foraging conditions, especially during the calving season. Climate‐induced changes to arctic tundra are projected to cause vegetation zones to shift significantly northward, reducing the area of tundra and the traditional forage for these herds. Freeze‐thaw cycles and freezing rain are also projected to increase. Future climate change could thus mean a potential decline in caribou and reindeer populations, threatening human nutrition for many indigenous households and a whole way of life for some arctic communities (Text credit: Banerjee 2002–2007).

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Figure 10.

‘Public Smog is a Scheme’ Public Smog, Flash loop documentation still, Amy Balkin, 2006–2011.

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Figure 11.

‘Public Smog is no Substitute’ Public Smog billboards, Bonamoussadi, Douala, Cameroon, Amy Balkin, 2009 (Image Credit: Benoît Mangin).

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