Purple haze and numbered days

By Annie Keig
Photography by Colin McDiarmid

If climate change was purple, would we take it more seriously? Professor James Renwick asks that question of scientists and artists. He talks to Annie Keig about his plan to turn science communication to climate action.

James Renwick, now a professor at  Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, stumbled into science communication in the late 1990s working at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). “I started interacting with journalists about the climate of New Zealand and doing interviews. I found that I really enjoyed it and that I was reasonably good at it.” After being selected for the 2018 Prime Ministers Science Communication award 20 years later, he’s teaming up with Track Zero and Victoria University, and putting $40,000 of his prize money right back into a multi-year science/arts communication project called What if Climate Change was Purple?  

“The fundamental driver for me is wanting to see action on climate change,” Renwick says, “we have the ability to stop emitting, to stop burning fossil fuels, to stop emitting greenhouse gasses. It’s within our power to tackle these problems right now.” This project brings together artists and research scientists to create science based art pieces through a series of workshops.

Imagining climate change as a colour is more than just an artsy gimmick, says Renwick. “It would be really different – people would see carbon dioxide in the air and would see the air getting more purple over time,” Renwick says, “You look out the window and it’s a beautiful day in Wellington today, why would you think there’s a problem?”It’s good to understand the theories behind climate change, says Renwick, but “what we need is more of a connection with the heart rather than the head. The arts and stories are all about that emotional connection. Telling a story that engages people rather than just facts and knowledge.”

The project extends across two years until July 2021, including collaborative workshops at the university in November 2019, two phases of funding, and eventual exhibition of finished projects across Aotearoa New Zealand in mid 2021. “The breadth of what’s proposed, in terms of dance, music, video, and poetry is really exciting,” Renwick says. One of the projects, Te Taki o te Ua/The Sound of Rain, is being created by Kāi Tahu choreographer Louise Potiki Bryant, composer Paddy Free, and singer/songwriter/taonga pūoro player Ariana Tikao (Kāi Tahu), together with Dr Daniel Hikuroa, a scientist who specialises in mātauranga Māori, and Dr Mike Joy, an earth systems and freshwater scientist.

James is currently the Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University, specialising in large-scale climate variations

Renwick says it’s never too late: “whenever we decide to stop putting carbon dioxide into the air, then the climate will stop changing.” But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t at a serious crossroads. Realistically, some changes will be irreversible. “There are social thresholds, agricultural thresholds, probably, that we will cross – and I don’t know exactly where they are, but a lot of them would come in between 1.5 degrees and two degrees of warming.”

Assessing the success of his project will be difficult, Renwick says. One measure could be the total audience for the works created, but the real point is to change thinking and encourage action on climate change. Getting people talking is one of the most powerful things we can do and it would help support other green industries because people would realise how much we need to move away from business as usual, says Renwick. “My attitude is that very little bit helps, and general exposure to thought-provoking ideas about climate change has to be a good thing.”


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