Along with science, technology and education, the arts have a significant role to play in helping us address climate change. We look at the role that cultural policy has in helping us develop and envisage a more sustainable world. 

British Council Vice-Patron His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales visited the organisation’s new headquarters in Stratford in October 2021. He underlined the importance of building trust and understanding, but, as the visit was just days before his speech to world leaders at COP26, he particularly highlighted the need to work together to solve global issues.

Prince Charles was introduced to participants in the British Council’s Climate Connection programme, which brings people around the world together to address the climate crisis through arts and culture, education and the English language. He spoke with four ‘Green Scholars’ from Egypt, Nigeria, Turkey and India, who are studying climate-related subjects at UK universities after receiving scholarships from the British Council.

He was also presented with a copy of the British Council’s Global Youth Letter, which conveys young people’s aspirations and recommendations about climate change to global policymakers. Based on research into the views of 8,000 young people across 23 countries, the findings have contributed towards COY (UN Conference of Youth) 16’s Youth Statement, which was formally presented to the Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, COP President Designate at COP26.

His Royal Highness focused on connections and cooperation, underlining the idea that addressing global issues, such as climate change, requires action across all levels of society. The role of the arts in this area has arguably been missing from the public and policy debate. However, the potential for arts and culture in addressing the climate crisis has been central to The Climate Connection, the British Council’s global platform on climate change. As Chris Dessent, Managing Director of Creative Concern, the agency behind one of the Creative Commissions for the Climate says:

Art will always be a method for us to make sense of our world, to document the changes we see around us and crucially, to drive the changes that are needed in society.

Sam McNeilly expands on this idea in his essay for a special Cultural Relations Collection commissioned as part of the Climate Connection, in which he calls climate change ‘a crisis of culture’, given that fossil fuels are deeply embedded within our cultures. He argues that expressive arts have ‘proven to be an effective visual tool in rendering visible the social and cultural effects of fossil fuels’ and can help us make a cultural transition to a low-carbon world.

But it is not only artists and cultural practitioners who are needed in this space – they need a positive and enabling policy landscape. The British Council and Julie’s Bicycle have conducted research into the role of cultural policy in addressing climate change and their report Cultural Policy: the missing link in climate action’ looked at ways in which national cultural policy can strengthen the creative climate movement. The research combines data analysing publicly available national arts policies of 25 ODA countries and insights from a survey of arts and culture bodies, as well as in-depth roundtables and interviews with leading international arts leaders. This partnership is driven by the shared desire to put the arts and culture sector at the heart of addressing climate change.

While the report uncovered many examples of arts and culture initiatives to tackle climate change at a local and grassroots level, national cultural policy has not managed to keep pace with the activity in the sector. While there are high levels of cultural ambition, enormous amounts of creativity and solutions, the national policies for culture and the arts are generally not aligned to climate science or national commitments under the Paris Agreement. Most (73%) of the responding arts councils, cultural ministries or public arts development agencies do not believe they have a statutory mandate to address climate or environmental issues in public cultural policy or strategy. Nearly half of these volunteered that this lack of mandate was a key barrier to linking cultural policy to climate and environmental issues. Even without this mandate, a majority of those responding either strongly agreed or agreed that ‘environmental issues are relevant to my country’s cultural policy’.

The report makes recommendations for the opportunities that are available to address this issue through policy dialogue with national policymakers, and provides new evidence and insight to support this dialogue.

The arts and cultural sector, through its different art forms, already ‘engages the public and its communities, influences trends, drives interdisciplinary collaboration, sparks innovation, and entices action - all of which is essential to climate change mitigation and adaptation’. The arts have a crucial role in mobilising and catalysing societal change.

This commitment from arts and cultural practitioners now needs to be organised and support is needed from cultural policy experts. The report recommends a ‘policy framework, funding and accountability to be fully mainstreamed into national environmental planning’ that includes the cultural community. It says the urgent and overdue policy dialogue with national policy makers is the missing link.

As the Prince of Wales observed, working together to address global issues has never been more important than now. Cultural relations can ensure that the global response can be nuanced and sensitive to cultural context. And along with science, technology and education, the arts have a significant role to play in helping us all imagine and create a better and more sustainable future.