Artists Are Skeptical About the COP26 Climate Conference

Though the conference aims to set ambitious goals to curb the devastating effects of climate change, artists and activists aren’t convinced that the annual event will galvanize change quickly enough.

“Hurt Earth” (2021) by Jenny Holzer. Photography by Adam Kenrick

More than 130 world leaders have descended on Glasgow for COP26, the UN’s annual global warming conference, which officially kicked off on Monday. This year’s event takes on particular urgency as climate scientists warn that if nations fail to immediately pivot from fossil fuels, catastrophic consequences await. Though attendees plan to set new targets for cutting emissions from burning coal, oil, and gas, success is elusive, especially as several developed countries have either failed to set such targets, announced weak ones, or not yet invested in poorer nations weathering increasingly severe climate disasters.

Though a multitude of artists (Jenny Holzer, Brian Eno, and Wayne Binitie) are activating around town for COP26, many have expressed skepticism—and outright anger—about how politicians are responding. Ai Weiwei has cautioned against viewing the conference as an end-all-be-all. Looking after the planet is a key “responsibility of being a human,” the Chinese dissident artist told Sky News, further noting that “it’s probably too late and most likely nothing will change.” Romuald Hazoumé, a Benin artist known for using only recycled materials, criticized political inaction: “There has been denial and we know where this denial comes from. We must recognize what we’re responsible for and not just accuse others.”

“Grace of the Sun” (2021) by Robert Montgomery, lit by Little Sun solar-powered lights. Photography by Philip Volkers

Perhaps most vocal is Olafur Eliasson, who teamed with Robert Montgomery on Little Sun, a light installation powered by 1,000 solar lamps at the Landing Hub art space. Over the past decade, the Danish-Icelandic artist has delivered 1.5 million solar lamps to those without electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. “I’m a part of the privileged Global North, where we need to thoroughly reassess the ideas and values that created wealth through extraction and violence on which we base our welfare societies today,” says Eliasson, who last year launched Earth Speakr, an artwork and app that invites children to speak up against climate change.

“We’re living in the most consequential decade in humanity’s history,” says South African social environmental justice activist Kumi Naidoo, who’s presenting a film with Eliasson at COP26. “What we do in the next ten years will determine what kind of future we have—and whether we have a future at all. We still have a window of opportunity, but, if we’re brutally honest, that window of opportunity is small, and it is fast closing.”

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