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Climate emergency: Stories are as important as science and … – ArtsProfessional

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Think back to summer 2022. What do you remember? If Claire Malcolm remembers one thing, it is the fear and foreboding she felt when UK temperatures topped 40C. 
Meteorological history was made that summer. Fires broke out. In England, there were 638 more deaths than normal. In the year since, the news of climate-caused natural disasters, fires and floods is now daily, extraordinary only in how normal it is becoming. It is frightening, but we must act.
The climate crisis isn’t something in the future; it’s already here. Mine is the first generation to know we are driving climate change. And probably one of the last to be able to meaningfully limit it. 
If it feels scary, that’s because it can be. Writers, poets, and publishers should be as concerned as your typical Greenpeace activist. We’re all stewards of this world. We must all do our bit to save it.
It’s convenient to think the only people who can take effective action against the environmental emergency are fossil fuel companies, politicians, or engineers and technologists. It’s tempting to wait for more solar panels, wind farms and better electric cars. But our cultural and creative industries have a profound and powerful part to play in the transition to a low-carbon society.
In 2019, New Writing North declared a climate emergency. But declarations are easy; action is harder. We didn’t stop there. We set ourselves the target of becoming a net zero organisation, taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we put into it. And we want to do it by 2030. 
We established an environmental and sustainability sub-committee to monitor our progress. Our staff went on climate literacy training. We recruited a Climate Writer in Residence. In the run-up to COP26, we produced a podcast series featuring writers, scientists and activists. Around 300 people helped us to create a digital poem which was viewed almost 15,000 times on YouTube.
When facing an existential challenge, language, stories, and words matter as much as science and technology. A writing development charity like New Writing North can help to frame debates about the climate crisis. The spaces these happen in. The tones they take. The feelings they leave us with. 
When pummelled daily by apocalyptic-sounding headlines it takes effort to resist slipping into submissive fatalism. As Adam Cooper, NWN Creative Associate and founder of the new ‘climate hope’ organisation, Threads In The Ground, asks: “Aren’t you exhausted about hearing the different ways the world will burn? Has it helped you?” 
That’s why organisations like Adam’s are so important. Scaring people and telling them what they’re doing wrong doesn’t work. When we get scared and overwhelmed, we shut down. He challenges us to be hopeful. To play. To experiment. To discover what action can look like. For each of us.
But lasting change can’t happen in isolation; we can achieve so much more when we work together. Nor can it happen as an afterthought; we must think differently about how we design our creative programmes to incorporate climate action from the start. We can’t all give up what we do to be climate activists, but we can link climate activism to all that we do.
With those beliefs, Adam and I recently found ourselves alongside 80 peers from the cultural and heritage sectors at Culture Northumberland’s Culture and Climate Change Day, which was supported by the North East Cultural Partnership, to test, inform and inspire each other in ways we can apply to our lives and cultural work. Participants proposed real-life creative projects and then worked collectively to build climate action into them, based on Threads In The Ground principles. 
Saying “climate change is everyone’s business” is one thing. But what does that mean in the context of, say, a WWII-themed heritage project? It might mean showcasing the resourcefulness of women on the Home Front who made wedding dresses out of recycled parachutes and contrasting this to contemporary fast fashion and consumerism. 
How do you incorporate climate action into an exhibition about Ancient Rome? Perhaps by exploring and experimenting with the ways in which the Romans preserved food, and considering what these might mean for food waste today. 
Overall, it was fantastic to see people rise to the challenge, generate impressive ideas, and leave brimming with possibility. After all, nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something, right?  
There is much work to be done – by all of us, in any profession but we already have the tools, we just now need to begin. For me it starts with words. The stories we tell. The conversations we have. The futures we can imagine. 
Claire Malcolm MBE is CEO of New Writing North and a board member of the North East Cultural Partnership. 
 newwritingnorth.com/ | Threads in the Ground
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