It’s time to mobilize the arts and culture sector in our fight against climate change

Anthony Garoufalis Auger
WHAT Media

The Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez, announced the forthcoming holding of a national summit on the revival of the arts and culture sector. Among the topics of discussion will be the crucial role of the cultural sector in the fight against climate change.

It’s good news.

Arts and culture are typically absent from discussions of climate and environmental policy. Currently, the federal government’s Net Zero Advisory Group does not include any representation from the social science or cultural sector. Climate mitigation models used in Canada to guide government policy also do not include culture and general behavioral changes in their parameters.

The assumption is that the culture won’t change enough to challenge our obsession with unsustainable economic growth and that future technological developments – fingers crossed – will save the day.

The environmental challenges we face call for nothing less than the need to rapidly transform our society to bring human activity back within planetary boundaries to ensure the long-term viability of all species. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world must reduce pollution from global heating by at least 7.6% per year in each year of this decade to limit global warming.

So, what role could the artistic and cultural sector play in the face of the climate and ecological emergency?

It is increasingly recognized that our planetary emergency cannot be resolved through a phased approach. Calls for economic and social mobilization on the scale of World War II grew in the United States, Canada and Europe, thanks to groups like Sunrise Movement, World War Zero, Extinction Rebellion and leaders of opinion like Joseph Stiglitz and Seth Klein.

We know that economic mobilization will require supply-side policies, such as rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, transforming our food systems, and restructuring our built infrastructure accordingly. But alone, these will not be enough. Without parallel social mobilization – through the use of culture and information – the rapid adoption of the necessary lifestyle and behavioral changes at the population level are unlikely to materialize.

Multiple initiatives are now emerging around creating a greater role for arts and cultural institutions that implement greening practices and imagine how culture can help shape the ecological values ​​and norms needed to move us from hyper-consumption to environmental stewardship.

This is the mission of the new organization Sectoral Climate Arts Leadership for the Emergency (SCALE), which will be launched publicly in the coming months. In partnership with the Climate Emergency Unit, SCALE is trying to catalyze the sector around solving our planetary emergency.

SCALE was founded on the belief that Canada’s arts and culture community is uniquely positioned to assist in the emergency mobilization required. The organization recognizes the power of storytelling to help us embrace new perspectives and create an enduring vision for the society we aim to build.

It is through the arts and culture that we can win hearts and minds to engage citizens in rigorous and sustained individual and collective action and obtain the support necessary for the success of supply-side policies. SCALE is working to define what exactly a green and just recovery for the sector would look like as the summit nears.

It is also time to review our cultural policy framework in Canada.

Canada’s cultural framework, infrastructure and funding programs must create an enabling environment for the sector to fully participate in such engagement. Many of the programs and institutions under Canadian Heritage are more than 20 years old and were not designed with the challenges of the 21st century in mind. It’s time we harnessed the power of this sector to help us meet our international climate and environmental obligations.

We urgently need to reflect on the critical role arts and culture play in addressing our planetary emergency and enabling a green recovery. The summit will be a welcome opportunity for artists and cultural workers to raise their voices on the emergency and imagine a greater role for their sector in rewriting our global discourse towards a sustainable path forward.

Anthony Garoufalis-Auger is an organizer with the Climate Emergency Unit. He is a founder and member of the coordination circle of the Sectoral Climate Arts Leadership for the Emergency (SCALE). He lives in Montreal.


James C. Tibbs