Al Gore inspires ‘CO2,’ an opera; a physicist lectures on climate change with a string quartet

By Brittany Patterson | 06/03/2015 08:14 AM EDT

Climatologist David Adamson stood alone onstage. A film featuring images of the Earth appeared on a screen behind him. He spoke directly to the audience, laying out the case that climate change threatens civilization as we know it. This is the opening scene of a new climate change-themed opera that just concluded a three-week run at Milan’s La Scala theater. Director Giorgio Battistelli said the composition, titled “CO2,” was inspired by Al Gore’s 2006 climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Climatologist David Adamson stood alone onstage. A film featuring images of the Earth appeared on a screen behind him. He spoke directly to the audience, laying out the case that climate change threatens civilization as we know it.

"Greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, chlorofluorocarbons and methane, produced by modern industry and the modern way of life, are causing the Earth’s climate to heat up with potentially devastating consequences for the future," Adamson said. "And we now know, because of these human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, that carbon dioxide has been emitted into the atmosphere in increasing amounts for over 150 years."

This is the opening scene of a new climate change-themed opera that just concluded a three-week run at Milan’s La Scala theater. Director Giorgio Battistelli said the composition, titled "CO2," was inspired by former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 climate change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Al Gore
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, the inspiration for the Italian opera “CO2,” visited France last month to meet with French President François Hollande. | Photo courtesy of AP Images.

The composition, which is divided into nine scenes, plus a prologue and epilogue, features, for perhaps the first time in the history of opera, a climate scientist as its main character.

According to the opera’s program guide, the performance’s driving narrative is Adamson’s lecture in which he explains the ills facing Earth. It is interspersed and interrupted by episodes that take the audience to different locations through time and space.

During the course of the performance, the audience meets four archangels, scientists and ecologists; Adam, Eve and the serpent; Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess of the earth; a sister of a Thai tsunami survivor, a Thai hotel manager; and also young people, travelers and women doing their shopping. There is even a scene at international climate meetings in Kyoto.

"I was looking for a theme [that] was not ideological, not religious and that was not the usual plot based on a novel or from a story," Battistelli said in the program guide. "[I] was interested in finding a subject away from our cultures, and that would address a global issue."

Music and performance art have been used for thousands of years to spur conversations and elicit emotional responses. Some have been broad-based entertainments, others celebrate religion or famous victories or bring us into tragedies, or simply show off humanity’s penchant to create. Lately, artists have begun using these tools to help people understand the threats of climate change and the complex body of science that may help us cope with them.

Plots thicken

This spring, for example, a festival of climate change-related arts and ideas — called ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2015 — took over Melbourne, Australia. Increasingly, books, movies and television are counting climate change as part of the plot. Some universities around the world are now offering classes in climate fiction. or "cli-fi" (ClimateWire, April 27).

"I would say art — and music and performance art is particularly good at this — when it’s done well has the power to take the spectator out of their daily lives, daily concerns and immerse them in a temporary state, where they have the space to feel, be moved and be carried on the dream being dreamt by the artists on stage in front of them, the dream of the choreographer, the writer, the musician," said Lucy Wood, program director for Cape Farewell, an organization that brings artists, climate scientists, economists and social innovators together to create, among other things, art and performances.

Taken at face value, the sheer scale and magnitude of climate change may be too much for most people, Wood said.

"If it remains mere data, and large amounts of highly complex, dry data at that, people are literally blinded by it," she added. "So people are able to file it away as something we don’t have to deal with because it’s not an immediate concern, because they don’t feel the emotional, moral connection to it."

Scott St. George is a self-proclaimed fan of data visualization, but the assistant professor of geography at the University of Minnesota, who specializes in dendrochronology (that’s the study of tree rings), says he’s very aware charts and graphs don’t do it for most other people.

That is why in 2013, when then-undergraduate student and cellist Daniel Crawford took a research assistant position in St. George’s tree trimming lab, it didn’t take long for St. George to task Crawford with turning NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies’ global average temperature data from 1880 to 2012 into something musical.

It was a project St. George had kept in the back of his mind since graduate school — could music communicate the magnitude of climate change?

"He [Crawford] said, ‘I think I can do that,’ and in a couple of days came back with exactly what I imagined," St. George said. "I think when you can hear it, when it’s expressed through the lens of some sort of classical instrument, you do hear things that are sometimes easy to overlook."

Songs of our warming planet

The first composition, titled "A Song of Our Warming Planet," features Crawford and his cello. In the piece, each note represents a year. The pitch reflects the average temperature of the planet relative to the 1951-80 base line. Low notes represent cool years, while high notes represent warm ones.

Surprisingly, the piece was a hit and received a quite a bit of media attention.

Last month, Crawford and St. George released their second musical interlude, "Planetary Bands, Warming World." It is composed of NASA Goddard temperature data for four different regions of the Northern Hemisphere and scored for a string quartet.

Each performer represents one of four zones in the Northern Hemisphere: near the equator (cello), the mid-latitudes (viola), the upper latitudes (violin) and the Arctic (violin).

To get the range of musical notes, Crawford translated the pitch range of a violin to the range of temperatures seen in the Arctic over the past 135 years. Given those bounds, he then calculated the exact pitch corresponding to different temperatures in the data set for the rest of the instruments.

"The violin representing the Arctic gets extremely high, to the point where toward the end of the piece you can almost barely hear it," he said. "Just the rate that the Arctic changes over the past few decades in particular, relative to the other regions, is pretty staggering. I think being able to hear, ‘Wow, this violin is climbing way higher than this other violin,’ it’s a different way to experience the data."

Both St. George and Crawford said they can’t say if their musical expressions of climate change have had a lasting impact, but anecdotally both said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I think more broadly it shows that people think of science and arts of being totally separate, but they’re just different ways to look at the world," St. George added.

Exploring puzzles with visuals and a string quartet

About a decade ago, physicist Robert Davies began attending chamber music concerts while he was working at the University of Oxford in England when a strange thing began to happen.

"I would walk in with all sorts of puzzles in my mind — usually what I was working on was quantum optics — and find that during the concert my mind would unlock," he said.

Robert Davies
Robert Davies lectures about climate change while the Utah State University String Quartet plays in “The Crossroads Project.” | Photo courtesy of Andrew McAllister.

During that same time, Davies also began wandering into lectures given by Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and found himself floored by the gap between what scientists understood about climate change and what the public did. He assumed the disconnect was due to poor communication and began giving his own lectures on the topic.

Davies’ lectures to his students didn’t seem to go over much better, he found.

"It occurred to me, I’m giving these climate change public lectures and people seem to get it intellectually, but it’s difficult to get your brain around the scale of what we’re talking about, and I don’t just mean the scale of the change, but the scale of the implications for humanity," he said.

He thought back to how chamber music gave his brain the space to unlock the puzzles of physics and think about the problem in a different way.

"The idea was to not let them bring in any old puzzles they’re working on in their life; the idea was to displace what’s in their brains and impose a theme of my choosing, and that theme was a sustainability science, of which climate change is certainly a part," he said.

Davies, who now works at the Utah State University Climate Center, enlisted the help of the school’s resident string quartet and created an immersive production called "The Crossroads Project." It premiered in Utah in the fall of 2012 and has been performed 17 times, with more on the calendar. A sequel is in progress.

The team commissioned the composer Laura Kaminsky to write music for the project. It also includes a bevy of artwork, including images taken by nature photographer Garth Lenz and projections of nature-inspired paintings by Rebecca Allan, displayed behind the musicians.

The performance is broken into five acts that explore sustainable systems with Davies lecturing and then five to six minutes of music and images.

And as he puts it, "The first three acts are fun, but the fourth is a real ass-kicker, so to speak."

Acts one through three touch on the science of life, water, the biosphere, and soil and plankton.

The fourth act switches gears and looks at food, energy and our economic system, and presents scientific facts on how much humans consume, how rapidly this has increased and the impacts this has had on the natural world.

Producing the ‘Oh, my God’ moment

"It’s that vignette that presents the ‘Oh, my God’ information," Davies adds. "Seventy-five percent of the world’s fisheries are in some state of collapse. If everyone consumed like Americans, we’d need three to four planets."

A fifth and final act asks the audience to reimagine the world and consider how humanity can begin changing these unsustainable systems.

Although a climate change-based work of art may be powerful in the moment, what if any lasting impact it has is less clear, said Barry Rabe, director of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.

Rabe said it’s "clearly a possibility" that the arts can effectively take on environmental issues. He pointed to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book "Silent Spring," which documented how the chemical DDT affected the environment, and, to a lesser extent, Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth."

But polling conducted on the impact of Gore’s documentary found little-to-no-lasting impact, Rabe said, and it’s unclear with any artistic endeavor who the audience really is.

"I think it’s one of the challenges of using the arts — do those efforts reach a cross section of the population or do they reach those who are sympathetic?" he asked, adding that research shows when it comes to climate change, people are generally locked into their positions. "With ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ it’s not clear if that’s had much impact because in many ways it’s preaching to the choir."

An audience leaves in silence

When the public experiences localized changes and severe weather attributed to a changing climate, that has been shown to move the public opinion needle, he said. If artists focused on those changes as opposed to looking internationally or systemwide, it could be a way to connect to the public on climate change.

Overall, it’s an interesting question that could benefit from more research, Rabe said.

"Is the use of the fine arts a real lens for a broad cross section of the population that allows people to explore climate change without beating them over the head with it?" he added.

Often when the performance concludes, the audience leaves in silence, Davies said.

"We hold up a mirror to our audiences and say we have these amazing and very fortunate lives … it’s us that are mostly causing all of this carnage, or it’s the systems that manufacture our existences that are what are having huge impacts certainly on natural landscapes and on the biosphere in general and other people, as well," he said.

In order to get people to begin making those changes, Davies believes worldviews must be altered, which is a big ask from anyone. He said imagery and music help enhance the audience’s understanding of the science because it can produce a visceral response.

"I’m not saying people walk out with that, but you have to get them to think about it, to start to get their minds around it," he said. "That’s the challenge and where the arts can come in. When you’re asking people to change something big, do something hard, there has to be real motivation."