Live Oak, 2005, 54 x 60 inches, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Nick Debs, New York.
Plume 2, 2005, 26 x 46 inches, oil on canvas.
Way back in the 20th century, environmental action was all kind of easy. The problems were largely in your face, or at least in your lungs, eyes, and water supply. Hazards were here and now. Smog was a visible pall over big cities. Rivers ran foul with sewage. Even the threat to the ozone layer from synthetic spray-can ingredients and the like had a vivid icon -- a great purple, bruise-like mark on satellite images showing the "hole" in the protective layer over Antarctica.

With pollution posing a clear and present danger, and remedies known and affordable, it was possible for lawmakers from both parties, mostly under a Republican president, to create a suite of revolutionary laws aimed at protecting rare wildlife and cleaning the country's air and water. Similar circumstances made it possible, on a global scale, for nearly all the world's countries to agree to the first treaty aimed at safeguarding the atmosphere -- the Montreal Protocol banishing ozone-depleting chemicals.

In this century, it's all quite different. There is no simple icon for human-driven warming of the climate. Its impacts will be spread over time and space and always come with some uncertainty. No one will ever be able precisely to chart how fast temperatures and sea levels will rise, even though there is no argument at all any more about the main driver of change now and in coming decades -- an ever-growing flow of smokestack and tailpipe gases that trap heat somewhat like a greenhouse roof. While the ozone-destroying compounds were made by a handful of companies, carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, is produced by almost every human activity, from turning on a light to toppling a forest.

And the challenges don't end there. Even if every engine around the world were shut down today, there's enough heat banked in the oceans already to keep the world warming for at least a few decades. That means that the climate problem, and climate solutions, are all about the future -- about how much we value the future, how much we want to do now to limit climate changes later in the century.

The first step in accepting the responsibility that attends our newly-revealed planet-scale influence is to recognize that we have this power, to normalize the notion that Earth is increasingly what we choose to make it.

That also means the climate question is no longer just about science, but also about culture and values -- and thus about art, as well. Only when human values evolve so that future risks are meaningfully weighed against current actions will there be a prospect of dealing with this keystone environmental issue of the 21st century.

When climate questions permeate paintings and sermons and songs as much as they do scientific conferences and journals, perhaps that will signal we are ready.

Andrew C. Revkin has covered the environment for The New York Times since 1995. His books include The North Pole Was Here, and The Burning Season.

Copyright Andrew C. Revkin 2006
The opinions expressed in these essays are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the National Academy of Sciences or the National Research Council.

The artist would like to thank J. D. Talasek and Alana Quinn for their thoughtful support. She would also like to thank Nick Debs, Joy Episalla, Bill Jones and Amy Lipton for their illuminating discussions on art, politics, and climate change.

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