Home News China Through Art China Takes a Look at Climate Change

Through Art China Takes a Look at Climate Change

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The effects of global warming have shown their distruptive potential in many corners of the world.

With the UN Climate Change Conference opening in Durban next Monday, attention will be on China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.   

Coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, accounts for 70 percent of Chinese energy supply.

Though the government is heavily investing in alternative and sustainable types of energy, it is unlikely that China will move away from its dependency on coal any time soon.

Green activist say there is insufficient public information about climate change in China.

Rebecca Valli looks at how, through art, environmentalists are working to get the message out.


A massive screen lights up the dark room. Mount Everest towers above a frozen valley.

Black and white, the picture was taken in 1921.

Then slowly a new color photograph, taken recently and from the exact same vantage point, slides across the screen.

Now bare rock stand where the icy peaks were. The valley once white in snow is now brown.

“We are all living, we are not all on the top of Everest of course, but we all have a feeling things are happening but we can’t quite document, and record and make sense, and clearly know what to do next. So our goal is to slow a viewer down at that point long enough that they can actually just process and begin to think, it is not necessarily an action that they may take.”

Photographer Susan Meiselas curated this art exhibition in Beijing.

Next to the stunning views of frozen mountains, are images of coal processing plants and miners from different parts of the world.

The goal is to explore the connection between coal production and global warming.

In one photograph a naked miner is crawling up a narrow underground path, around his waist a chain is connected to a metal basket full of coal.

“The naked man is not everyman but he is symbolic and the smoke in the air of these coal power plants that are very powerfully emitting through we don’t know exactly where the particles go. It is another suggestion that something is happening around us that we are tolerating.”

Although the global recession had a negative impact on coal use in almost every other part of the world, coal consumption continues to increase in China.

33-year-old Zhu says that in China only a small number of people are ready to change their habits to protect the environment, but he thinks that even if everybody behaved responsible it would not be enough.

“It must be something systematic that gets better. For example, even if people want to throw the batteries in the right bin, but then there aren’t bins to throw batteries in, than it won’t work.”

20-year-old Zhou Mengyue found the exhibition inspiring and she believes things are changing.

“Social responsibility is increasing. Not only just single everyday people, but today also famous people in society they come up and talk about these issues. And I think that when people with influence in society say something, then the rest of us listen and pay attention.”

One such person is award-winning environmental journalist, Wang Yongchen.  

She says working in China is challenging.

“Each Saturday we have a river walk, this morning we were in Tongzhou walking around the river there. Suddenly a guard just came up and forbid us to film.” 

In 1996 Wang founded Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental protection NGO that among many other campaigns also organizes regular reporting trips to Beijing rivers.

“We said we are just citizens walking around the rivers, we pay attention to the water, is it worth to register with you first? If everyone has to register like that doesn’t that make your workload unbearable? This is the current situation in China! “

Just like in the art exhibit Wang shows pictures of before and after.

This time the subject is the wetland at the feet of the Himalaya mountain range. In the span of just ten years, the same landscape has completely changed.

The abundant streams of water and the green vegetation have disappeared.

“There are people saying: but if the glaciers melt then the water downstream should be more abundant. But the thing is that more water evaporates and the level of underground water also gets lower. At the head of the Yangtze river near the Himalaya we are facing lack of water. But how many people know about this? At the head of the Yangtze river there were more than 4,000 small scale highland lakes, now they are not even 1,000.”

In her reporting trips around the Chinese countryside Wang has seen industrialization and development, making people rich but not necessarily better off.

“This village used to be poor until a big multinational built a factory. All families sent their sons to work at the plant, and they all earned money. But because of the pollution and factory discharges, all the grain cultivated in the village turned black. The level of pollution-related illnesses was also higher. So our journalists asked them would you go back to when you were poor, but had clear skies, blue water, and good grain or do you prefer now: rich and polluted? How do you think they answered?"

Wang says that time and time again villagers tell her they rather have a clean environment over economic development.  

At the gallery, the last room features photographs of extreme weather patterns: floods, droughts, unnaturally strong waves.

“Many people have asked why the waves and, of course, we are really trying to suggest that nature is being transformed in ways that we can barely see and understand and it takes all of us working together to do something about that.”

Meiselas says that all sorts of people can contribute their part to raising awareness.

And if the job is done well, the public in China and around the world will ask questions and participate.

Last Updated ( Monday, 28 November 2011 10:58 )  

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