Engaging with the climate crisis, online

Across a quartet of digital platforms, including one for this week’s Climate Sensing and Data Storytelling convening, the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities is encouraging public engagement and the pairing of environmental art and science on climate issues.

Silhouettes of two people in front of a blue background displaying chemical names
As part of the Climate Sensing and Data Storytelling event, the Making Sense gallery features a variety of artworks, including “The Altering Shores,” a transmedia project by Roderick Coover, Nick Montfort, and Adam Vidiksis that explores sea-level rise, among other issues. (Image: Sarah Milinski)

In a poem titled “la contraria/to be contrarian,” Puerto Rican poet Raquel Salas Rivera, a Penn graduate, responds to the coronavirus pandemic and speculates on an imagined future in a poem written in Spanish and English. In the conclusion, Salas Rivera writes:

“today i was finally able to write
and i decided to leave this note for the sanitation workers:

thank you, i don’t know you, but my trash is toxic and you take it.
if i had an extra mask, it would be all yours,
like my tattered and slightly broken heart.
thank you for surviving and it’s not for nothing
but the uniform looks great.

The poem, which speaks to the societal, social, and personal impacts of the pandemic as well as environmental harm, is one of many contributions featured online through a digital platform hosted by the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH). Launched on Earth Day, the Climate Sensing website, which includes the covidXclimate vertical, where Salas Rivera’s poem is published, brings together projects intended to foster thought and action on the climate crisis. Developed with support from the National Geographic Foundation, it also serves as a home for the Climate Sensing and Data Storytelling (CSDS) convening, which moved to a virtual platform because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Not being able to bring people to campus obviously has its drawbacks,” says Meg Arenberg, managing director for PPEH. “But the advantage is that we can open up the conversation much more widely.”

A hand holds a pen in front of an iceberg in the ocean
Work by Amy Balkin, artist-in-residence for the PPEH this year, is a part of the Making Sense gallery. (Image: Amy Balkin)

Indeed, the PPEH team has seen a buzz around their efforts, with a flood of registrations for the keynote address by Amitav Ghosh, and robust engagement on the other platforms, including My Climate Story, a bank of personal climate narratives, and Making Sense, a digital art exhibition.

Bethany Wiggin, founding director of PPEH and principal investigator on the grant from National Geographic, is sharing a talk at the CSDS convening, together with students Alex Imbot and Maggie McNulty, about “Futures Beyond Refining” in Philadelphia. Among the suite of projects the grant supports is the podcast, Data Remediations, which also features an episode on the topic “Environmental Justice in Gray’s Ferry,” with extensive reporting by PPEH climate storytelling intern Piotr Wojcik. 

Having these initiatives unified online has additional advantages, Arenberg says.

“We started thinking about how combining these into a single digital platform allows us to both invite new voices into ongoing public projects with a single entry point to participate,” she says, “and at the same time showcase some of the stories that have already been shared.”

Before the pandemic placed an indefinite pause on large in-person gatherings, PPEH had big plans for the spring. They planned a number of interactive events on Penn’s campus to mark Climate Week, to be held around the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. They were also set to host a climate storytelling booth at the Philadelphia Science Festival’s Carnival, which draws thousands. Not to be frustrated by these cancellations, PPEH’s team, including Arenberg, Wiggin, and recent hire Angela Faranda, PPEH program assistant, got to work with the program’s fellows and public research interns to find ways to ramp up digital efforts. 

against a background of wildfire, the writing "wildlife smoke forced my family to live in our garage for weeks." -evie
Personal experiences with climate change form the basis of narratives in the My Climate Story platform. (Image: Piotr Wojcik)

The My Climate Story bank expands on an established project to evoke and collect the personal experiences of changing climates felt by many around the world. Earlier this year, with help from the Penn Language Center and a bevy of volunteer translators, the team added story prompts in 14 additional languages to expand accessibility and the diversity of participants. And interns Grace Boroughs, Katie Collier, and Evie Sorrell have enhanced the effort with instructional videos to encourage participation. 

The Making Sense exhibition, too, was one that was originally planned to accompany the in-person event. “That portion includes photographs, collage, cinematic video work, recorded interviews, games, and even a musical composition presented in a gallery format with curatorial notes,” says Arenberg. The gallery has submissions from PPEH’s scholarly partners, participants in the convening, as well as current and former artists-in-residence, Amy Balkin and Roderick Coover, respectively.

Sheet music laid atop a page of handwritten notes
Teresa Cohn, Erin James, and Jenn Ladino, presenters at the Climate Sensing and Data Storytelling Convening, shared a piece of music, “Wilderness Suite,” composed by Ruth Fulton and the Icarus Quartet, in the gallery. (Image: Teresa Cohn, Erin James, and Jenn Ladino)

The covidXclimate project, developed to spur art, activism, and engagement around the intersection of the twin crises presented by the pandemic and global climate change, has been spearheaded by Anne Berg, a professor in the Department of History, and Knar Gavin, an English doctoral student and a PPEH graduate fellow for 2019-2020, working closely with others from PPEH. 

“We’ve seen the COVID crisis shining a light on structural issues, societal issues, and the precarity that often has gone somewhat unnoticed or ignored in the context of the climate crisis,” says Berg. “So far we’ve seen, on a national level, interventions like the federal stimulus exacerbating these problems. We wanted to bring people together, on a global scale and in a democratic, non-hierarchical way, to share their own expertise on how we might be able to instead help and mitigate these concerns in this moment.”

Berg and Gavin reached out to artists, activists, students, and other contacts to solicit resources, writings, art, and scholarship that explore the connection between the convergent crises. “We wanted to involve a local component as well,” says Gavin. “I contacted local poets and transit and mobility justice activists to shed light on these intersecting issues from their unique perspectives.” 

“A poem can often give better direction than a policy brief,” says Berg. “We wanted to think about what different registers of knowledge and insight bring to the table and how that will shape the responses we’re able to imagine.” She encourages anyone interested to submit a response to the question “What’s this pandemic got to do with climate change?” on the covidXclimate platform.

Screenshot of virtual meeting with a speaker next to a treed with carved bark labeled arborglyph in Steens Mountain area
As part of the Climate Sensing and Data Storytelling convening, University of Oregon’s Marsha Weisiger discusses arborglyphs—carvings made in trees—as “data written into the land itself.” (Image: PPEH)

Berg, Gavin, and others hope many of these intersections and expertise come to the fore of discussions and talks during this week’s CSDS event. Various pre-recorded talks, including welcome remarks from Wiggin and School of Arts & Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty, have been posted on the event website, available to registered participants. Ghosh’s keynote talk, “Beyond the End of the World: Human and Non-Human After the Collapse of ‘Civilization,’” introduced by anthropology professor and PPEH Topic Director Nikhil Anand, and co-sponsored by the Wolf Humanities Center, available to registrants ahead of a live Q&A on May 7. On May 8, Ghosh will also participate in a public conversation with Adam Sobel, a scientist at Columbia University who studies extreme weather and climate change. 

Arenberg says that, in spite of the many challenges of being apart, she’s inspired by the sense of commitment and passion around the event and related discussions about exploring climate and environmental data through the lens of the humanities.

“I really thought we would hear from people saying, I can’t participate, it’s too much, I’m overwhelmed,” she says. “But generally the response has just been excitement about the possibilities that will emerge in bringing all of these threads together.”