A Chicago-based exhibition emphasizes the need for local climate change solutions

Breathing to the Next Breath
N. Masani Landfair, an artist focused on collage and assemblage, worked with Dr. Aaron Packman, Director of Center for Water Research at Northwestern University, to collaborate on the science and stories of flooding. To create her piece, Breathing to the Next Breath, Landfair grew the mold, warped the wood, and added a red marks to her organic ring to capture the bloodline of her mold-affected family members living in South Chicago.

By Natalie Eilbert
Medill Reports

For her newest installation, collagist N. Masani Landfair sought to recreate the black mold that festered in her South Side home in Chicago as a result of climate change and that had, throughout her life, affected her and her family’s respiratory systems. When she moved to Georgia, climate change once again pronounced itself as flooding and then mold in her former house, which allowed her to grow the mold featured in the installation.

The Third Coast Disrupted exhibition at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery is part of a larger conversation that merges artists and scientists on topics of climate change and environmental injustices. But for these enterprising spaces, it isn’t enough to shift our attention to climate change and hope the numbers scare people into belief. For organizers and communicators of climate science, emphasis on solutions must take precedence in these disorienting discussions. And it has little to do with belief.

Barbara Cooper, sculptor, formed her piece Seep after conversations with Dr. Daniel Horton, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Cooper constructed her wall-mounted pieces from found plastic bottles, hardware cloth, beeswax and more to communicate the toxicity from plastic waste found in Lake Michigan. (Natalie Eilbert/MEDILL)

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University and CEO and founder of ATMOS Research. For Hayhoe, if you don’t talk to people about climate solutions, they will go on the defensive. The widely misunderstood solution peddled by climate denialism is that it will destroy the economy and turn the United States into a socialist country, she said.

“We hear so much in the news and the media and the discussion online about people rejecting the science,” Hayhoe said. “But when it all comes down to it, 99.9% of people don’t truly reject the physics that we’ve known since the 1850s, or the numbers a thermometer gives us.”

But Hayhoe noted, too, that people want to be the good guys in the story. And if solutions are attainable, they want to know about them.

Dr. Genevieve Guenther, founder of End Climate Silence, collaborated with Data for Progress to conduct a survey seeking to quantify the gulf between climate change and media coverage. The data, collected in September 2020, revealed that 77% of voters want the media to make more explicit the link between climate change and extreme weather events. Guenther said that failure on the media’s part to cover climate change is a form of climate denialism.

“It’s important that the news media report on reality … otherwise it pretends that climate change doesn’t have a role in making these extreme weather events like the California wildfires worse, when climate change does make these weather events worse. It also enables people to ignore the problem,” Guenther said.

The origins of Third Coast Disrupted, according to Founder and Director Christine Esposito, started eight years ago halfway around the world in Fairbanks, Alaska, when Esposito attended an exhibition to bring awareness to the science of fire management. The team brought its own cadre of scientists, artists and fire managers. To Esposito’s surprise, the results of an attendees survey showed that 74% of respondents said the exhibition affected their view on fire, and more intriguing, 64% were inspired to learn more about fire.

“I thought to myself, we need to do this in the Chicago area and focus on our local climate change impacts, because people don’t understand that climate change is happening here,” Esposito said. She eventually set up a meeting with Hayhoe, who emphasized the need for the exhibition to prioritize solutions.

christine and butterfly
Christine Esposito, director of Third Coast Disrupted, stands alongside the impressive monarch butterfly depicted in muralist and painter Hector Duarte’s mixed media piece, Réquiem para dos espíritus, defensores de los migrantes tümü / Requiem for Two Spirits, Defenders of the Migrant Tümü. (Natalie Eilbert/MEDILL)

At Esposito’s behest, the artists and scientists, Landfair among them, met up for four salons to forge a community and dialog. For Landfair, who worked with Dr. Aaron Packman, the director of the Center for Water Research at Northwestern University, the story of flooding was immediately personal. They communicated for about a year before the exhibition.

“Aaron had said that in Chicago, there’s certain areas that should never have been built on: The land is so swampy that it will never really hold structures,” Landfair said. “And I always felt that because I knew that the land had been pushed out into the lake more and more — Streeterville and those areas were water — now they’re, you know, tall skyscrapers.”

Between showing artists their field sites in the Chicago area, sharing data and imagery, and sharing space and conversation at salons and retreats, Packman said the months of dialog were very organic.

Packman and Landfair both spoke about the byzantine water systems in Chicago, and both have had their fair share of tragedy as a result of flooding. Packman, who moved to a subdivision outside of St. Louis, Missouri, when he was young, lost many classmates to flooding. In Chicago, the confluence of factors for flooding complicates solution strategies.

“Because this is a big regional problem, essentially there’s no one single thing you can do to fix it everywhere,” Packman said. “So we’re looking at green infrastructure and really trying to document the multiple benefits of green space in these kind of environments.”

Esposito said that during their search for scientists, they wanted to prioritize people who emphasized solutions in their research.

“Action begins with conversation,” she said. “It isn’t just composting and changing your lightbulbs and recycling.” Climate scientists understand that even if individuals went green and became eco-conscious converts, that would still only account for 40% of emissions.

For Hayhoe, acting on climate change isn’t about whether you’re Democrat or Republican. Third Coast Disrupted is just one example of an exhibit that bases its message on the facts and materials presented, which is exactly the point of climate engagement.

“There are solutions that are conservative. There are solutions that are liberal. There are solutions that are bipartisan, which, logistically speaking, make the most sense, because they have the greatest chance of enduring multiple administrations,” Hayhoe said. “So as a scientist, I’m on board with anything that cuts carbon. As a human, I’m on board with anything that helps people and improves the quality of their lives.”

Natalie Eilbert is a health, science and environmental reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalie_eilbert.