Art=Change: adapting to climate change

Art=Change: adapting to climate change

By Ben Twist
Creative Carbon Scotland


Ben Twist, Director of Creative Carbon Scotland shares his reflections on how cultural organisations can consider adapting to climate change and why their approach might be different form existing or traditional adaptation strategies.

In March 2019 Creative Carbon Scotland hosted the first Transnational Meeting of the Cultural Adaptations project in Glasgow. As part of this meeting we ran a workshop for cultural organisations to explore with them the best way to help them develop their own adaptation plans. This was a first for us and, perhaps more importantly, it was the first time many of the participating cultural organisations had really begun thinking about adaptation, although we had had a brief introduction to the concept at our annual conference in 2017 and had run some very simple workshops at the 2018 conference.

Since running that Transnational Meeting workshop our own approach to the topic has become more sophisticated – as we learn from the Cultural Adaptations project, as the adaptation world around us matures and grows, and as we have done some important thinking about the role of culture in wider societal adaptation.

Introducing a risk-based approach to adaptation

In the session we focused on introducing the concept of adaptation to the cultural organisation staff who were attending and then working through a ‘risk-based’ approach to adaptation. This approach seeks to identify the main risks (or indeed opportunities) to an organisation (or building or community etc) affected by climate change and then to identify ways of reducing the risks/maximising the opportunities through action in advance or plans as to how to react when necessary.

This is a good basic and traditional approach, but importantly misses out the civic, social and influencing role of cultural organisations, which often do – or could – play an important part in bringing communities together in times of difficulty, such as providing resources like spaces to shelter or meet in, or offering means of both communication and discussion in advance of climate change to prepare for the changes to come.

Our colleagues from Climate Ready Clyde outlined the concept of climate change adaptation – what the changes might be in Scotland and particularly the Glasgow region, what adaptation means and why it is necessary. We then used the Climate Ready Business Guidance produced by Adaptation Scotland to take the participants through the process of thinking about how they should adapt. This material was aimed at businesses, and of course cultural organisations are businesses, even if most are non-profit making ones. It contains some explanation, some questions to help think through the issues and case studies and examples. And then we asked everyone to work through case studies of cultural organisations in small groups, and asked them to think about how they found the process.

Learning from the workshop

What became clear very quickly were three issues:

  1. Adaptation, even amongst people who had chosen to attend the session, was still quite a new concept for many cultural organisations’ staff, and needed quite a lot of talking through. Carbon reduction (or climate change mitigation in the technical term) was well understood and many organisations had well-established projects to reduce their energy use, travel etc, but adaptation was a new and sometimes unwelcome idea: did this mean we were abandoning mitigation because we had lost the battle?
  2. The business-world language of the material in the Climate Ready Business Guidance was quite unhelpful for our participants. They found terms like ‘customers’ and ‘market’ sat unhappily with the socially- and culturally-focused identity of their organisations, which would talk about ‘audiences’ or ‘attenders’. They saw themselves as part of collaborative networks rather than seeking ‘competitive advantage’ as the material suggests (although if more marketing people had attended, it might have been different!). It’s possible too that as what would be termed as Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs, with fewer than 250 employees) without deep pockets and working to short term budgets, as cultural organisations often are, the guidance and advice seemed aimed at larger organisations that could afford to invest more towards their future.
  3. Existing guidance and questions didn’t really take into account the artistic and socio-cultural aims of the cultural organisations. Not only was this difficult in terms of the language but didn’t quite fit with how the participants saw themselves and their organisations, which made them less comfortable with the whole process.

Culture has a role in wider community adaptation

Cultural organisations have another role, one which isn’t there for commercial organisations, and which our workshop in March 2019 didn’t address. They, their staff and their audiences see them in a different way, as values- rather than profit-led. And they are community hubs and stimulators of debate, meaning they can offer refuge at a time of crisis or help communities think through how they might respond if and when the impacts of climate change require action, so they can help communities prepare, and they can help them deal with a crisis.

In doing so they are fulfilling one of their roles which is to be social or community organisations as much as they are cultural ones. This role might be expressed very practically, as once the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in the UK was the place to sleep over when a big snowstorm hit the city and people couldn’t get home; or it might be more artistic or cultural, through the exploration in a work of art of different ways in which a community responds to a crisis, enabling audiences to think jointly about how it should respond.

Developing an adaptation strategy to suit your organisation

I think a strong adaptation strategy for a cultural organisation would cover both areas, but where to start perhaps depends on where your organisation is, including the readiness of other staff. It may be easier to engage senior management by highlighting financial or operational risk or potential damage to buildings rather than by proposing a shift in fundamental purpose, like becoming a community refuge in a time of crisis!

Watch Ben Twist's Ted Talk on why the arts are essential in addressing climate change

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Resource type: Articles | Published: 2021