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Learn about new policy on culture & climate change introduced at Copenhagen, Dec 09

by Cathy Fitzgerald on February 14, 2010

Above: Key cultural organisations present at the inaugural Culture|Futures Conference at COP15: National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, 2009

On 20 December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on culture and development, which emphasizes the important contribution of culture for sustainable development

April 2010  British Council Document on Art & Climate Change : includes Cultural Policy & Regulatory Guidelines, see end of post

Finally completed this article on my visit to the first international culture and climate change meeting in Copenhagen last December – if you are creating work in this area it gives a perspective of recent developments. Thanks to Susann Claffey for proof-reading this article.

Culture & Climate Change

transforming ‘the way we live together’
to bring humanity to an ecological age with 40 years

The first Culture and Climate Change Culture|Futures conference was held during the United Nations (UN) Climate Summit in Copenhagen (COP15), December 2009 led by the Danish Cultural Institute and other key international cultural organisations. I attended because I am interested in the overlap between art, ecology and science and as an arts practitioner I wished to understand more fully the current context in which I work. I also believed there were implications for others areas such as general arts education and policy. This article serves to highlight this rapidly developing area of cultural policy and to alert those working in the culture sector as to why these changes in cultural production are to be welcomed. The key outcome from this conference was that the culture sector will most effectively lead change in humanity’s behaviour to become more sustainable by introducing changes in its own production and consumption. One might think that the response of the cultural sector may be to produce ‘climate art’ but its most important role will be to act as ‘catalysts’ for introducing new ideas and visions of sustainable futures all over the world. As I discovered, the Culture|Futures conference had much larger ambitions than I anticipated for the cultural sector in Ireland and similarly across the world, in the very near future.

I have written this article because there was no discernible presence at the Culture|Futures conference from Ireland, apart from myself and a recent graduate. Also I believe many in the Irish culture sector are not engaged with ecological issues let alone climate change due mainly to it being little understood, and hence less prioritised, by Ireland’s leaders and media. For instance, it was only on the final day of the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen that it became the lead item on Ireland’s RTE news. It was ironic to say the least that the Culture|Futures key note speaker projected an image of Ireland in recent floods, alongside an image of the more familiar climate affected regions of Bangladesh.

The Culture|Futures conference organisers led by the host Danish Cultural Institute with support from other key international cultural organisations has worked over the last two years to reference key information from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in forming a draft international cultural policy document Cultural Transformation for an Ecological Age by 2050 (editor in chief: Gerlach-Hansen, 2009, see In attendance were representatives from the world’s Arts Councils, UNESCO, the Asia Europe Foundation (ASEF), the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture), Cultura21, National Trusts and National Cultural Institutes, Local Government, leading Arts and Ecology programmes, community organisations to forward thinking individual cultural practitioners. The draft policy document addresses the strategic role of ‘Culture’ in delivering an Ecological Age by 2050. This is an age of sustainability that will have to be adopted by humanity worldwide in just 40 years to prevent the worst of predicted climate and associated economic crisis. Chiefly, this age will be characterised by low carbon sustainable living, i.e one that relies on much less fossil fuel.

Against the backdrop of the political negotiations occurring at Copenhagen it was very evident that the Culture|Futures organisers believed that international political consensus to reduce carbon emissions will not be achieved in time to bring about a global shift in humanity’s behaviour. This was further confirmed in the failure for any legal binding treaty at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Yet for all those working in the cultural sector it is important to realise that while the political process failed at Copenhagen for setting binding carbon emissions limits, it was the first time the UN agreed with climate science evidence, even amidst all the media distraction caused by climate change skeptics before the conference, that global temperatures must not rise more than 2oC. There is also a growing understanding at the highest political level that an estimated 300,000 deaths annually now can be attributed to climate change and that an increase of global temperatures of 1.5oC will result in Island nations being the soonest and most severely affected. The importance of these realities to the cultural sector was further emphasised in that a new EU Commission post to deal directly with Climate Change and Culture is already being discussed.

Significantly, Culture|Futures ‘suggests that 40% of a successful transition to an ecological age in 2050 will rely on cultural change, i.e. changes in the way citizens go about their lives.’ That the culture sector can assist in moving humanity to an Ecological Age comes down to a previously internationally defined role of ‘Culture’. During 1993-6, the UN/UNESCO agreed that ‘Culture’ is a core element of sustainable development as it encompasses everything about ‘the way we live together’. As described in the Outcomes statement of the Culture|Future conference, those working in the cultural sector can, like ‘catalysts’, seek to introduce ideas for societal change by ‘sensing, translating, interpreting and narrating messages; creating and interpreting spaces and infrastructure for open dialogue, reflection, enjoyment and life; invite counter-narratives and imaginaries and by bridging between the local and the global, intimacy and outlook.’ For those in the arts, one must remember that ‘Culture’ as defined by UNESCO in 1982 as being ‘the way we live together’ not only includes the arts but also every ingredient that makes up society, including heritage, sport, education, local governance and faith traditions. Literally, in this context, Culture may be an important site of global inaction or transformation.

Are you listening? Cool Globes -
it’s not about everyone doing everything but everyone doing something’ street art from students around the world
, Copenhagen 2009

For my own work and I think for others beginning to engage with these concerns in Ireland, the Culture|Futures working policy document presents an important framework that can assist in recognising the potentially diverse range of activities and initiatives that may be created, how these can be integrated quickly throughout different sectors of society and will help to pinpoint how further engagement can be developed and supported. This document contained Actions to be taken by the (worldwide) Cultural Sector. These actions will have wide-ranging implications internationally across all Cultural Organisations, Arts Councils, down to every cultural practitioner. Areas identified where new ideas are needed were: cultural policy and leadership, best cultural practice across creative industries – which will no doubt influence the activities of individual cultural practitioners, relationship development with other sectors, relevance to wider public interests, research, education in general and for cultural education in particular, communication, heritage, urban and regional development, business and technology development, and regional and international collaboration and development. As this area will only grow in importance, and I expect relatively quickly due to worldwide urgency of this issue, I would encourage all involved in any cultural activity in Ireland to download this very readable document from This document is being finalised and will be circulated across culture sectors worldwide during 2010.

Also while I was heartened to think that my own small endeavours about creating film works on transforming monoculture tree plantations into biodiverse, carbon stable forests may have some validity, I was even more encouraged and inspired by the range of projects and programmes listed in the front of the Culture|Futures policy document and discussed at the conference. Significant responses to the climate challenge are occurring already across the creative sector: Julie’s Bicycle has involvement from eminent music producers and is tackling aspects covering the entire UK music industry; there were examples of innovative, low-energy designed architecture for culture; the London Climate Action Plan for film, theatre and music sectors; the acclaimed worldwide INDEX programme for design; fashion case studies with scientists; the first green studio for film and television production; case studies from World Cultural Heritage and Climate; wind power areas as tourist attractions; UNESCO multimedia resources for teaching and learning for a sustainable future; Greenmap.orgcommunity map-making identifying local environmental and culture sites; innovative city and regional planning (people and bike-centred, low energy cities, presented so well and with much optimism at the conference by world leading architects, Jan Gehl and Sunand Prasad (past president, Royal Institute for British Architecture) and urban cultural planning as in the Chinese Eco-City Cultural Strategy. Interestingly the world renowned engineering consultants, ARUP, have already been a key player in formulating the Culture|Futures document and Peter Head OBE of Arup, led the keynote speeches (Peter Head has travel the world over the last year presenting the Brunel Lecture on Entering the Ecological Age – a slide talk version can be seen here) . ARUP has been consultants to design the first Chinese eco-cities and they are well aware that culture is fundamental to engaging whole communities to shift to radically different but sustainable life-styles (urban design is going to be a key focus in regards to sustainability as in a few years over 75% of the world’s population will live in cities).

Also in this document is a brief overview of some leading Art & Ecology programmes:  intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogue programmes as in the Tipping Point (artists and scientists working together and with Transition Towns), Cape Farewell (cross discipline expeditions to the high Artic and Andean rainforests), Arcola Energy (knowledge transfer from the first carbon neutral theatre company), E-car (electric) races across Europe and the UK RSA Arts and Ecology programme (already a hive of information on all cultural activities in this area with its rapidly growing online network of creative practitioners).

Personally, this conference made me confront many diverse perspectives and ideas from around the world that reading by itself can never achieve. Many presentations and experiences shared by others were both encouraging and illuminating and it is very likely the diversity in response will be critical. Yet endeavours so far seem so insignificant when one stares squarely into the enormity of changes that have to be made. However it is a brave start and all interested are welcome to be part of ‘the expanding spiral of engagement’ that is Culture|Futures and its intended aim to be part of the official programme of the next UN Climate conference. Please consider joining the new online network and resource site, (this site is now inactive Oct 2010) (a Note from the Working Sessions has been uploaded since and many of the conference audio and video presentations will be uploaded shortly). You can add your projects or create/join groups of common interest to share and learn from others across the world. The title ‘Culture|Futures’ is somewhat misleading, the reality is that the world’s culture needs changing now!

Cathy Fitzgerald, MA Fine Art/New Media, has a background in science and art and has recently begun a PhD on experimental film and ecology. Formerly managing a 5 county local authority arts development programme in the South East of Ireland,, her own practice is documenting how she is turning her small monoculture conifer  plantation into an ecologically & economically valuable, permanent sustainable forest. It’s an ongoing, online diary at in images, short films, conversations between herself, foresters, her local community to respond to global issues. She is also very active in sustainable permanent forestry policy development. She also writes about other art & ecology projects that inspire and will be shortly be posting information on some of the projects presented at Copenhagen on her site to which you can subscribe. Cathy also leads art and ecology groups on the network and suggested the formation of the UK RSA Art & Ecology artists network site.

Cathy welcomes any questions or comments, please contact her on

Update: See April 2010 British Council Culture & Climate Change Document below

2010 British Council Culture and Climate Change Document: Long Horizons


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