The underwhelming results of the Copenhagen Accord during last month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark sent me searching my mental files for examples of how art has documented changes in world climate. My mind immediately went to Chichester Canal (pictured) by J. M. W. Turner. Painted in 1828, Turner’s acidic yellow skies seem artistic license to us today, but scientists know that Turner probably accurately depicted the skies at the time, which were still altered by the climate-changing events of 1816—the “Year Without a Summer."
In that fateful summer of 1816, the world chilled beneath a volcanic winter. Between 1812 and 1814, several large volcanoes spewed debris into the air, but the coup de grace came in 1815 with the eruption of Mount Tambora in the then Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Mount Tambora shot more volcanic dust into the atmosphere than any other eruption in the previous 1600 years. Even more chilling for us today are some of the other nicknames that 1816 earned, such as “the Poverty Year” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” Climate change was literally a matter of life and death.
Among the millions cooped up inside that fateful summer were the Romantic writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Watching cold rain fall incessantly upon the windows of their Swiss chalet, the two poets proposed a story-telling contest among their circle of family and friends. Little could they have guessed that the winner of that contest would be Shelley’s young wife, Mary, whose Frankenstein still makes us scream. Ironically, during that time of naturally occurring climate change, Mary Shelley would write the ultimate story of humanity toying with nature and paying a dear price, a message we should be listening to today when facing the cost of human-driven change. The Industrial Revolution’s “dark satanic mills,” as another Romantic poet, William Blake, called them, were just beginning to belch toxicity into the environment when Frankenstein’s creation slipped off the laboratory slab into immortality.
Turner’s art is just one example of artists documenting the environment in flux. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap may show the first effects of the “Little Ice Age” of the late 16th century. The blood red skies of Edvard Munch’s famous Scream convey his inner turmoil as well as actual turmoil observed above Norway’s fjords. And, yet, we refuse to see the evidence before their and our eyes when it comes to the environment. Amazingly, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner propose in their cult tome SuperFreakonomics that global warming can be solved by manually duplicating the same volcanic winter that brought about 1816’s misery as a counterbalance to the warming trend. Al Gore and others respond that playing God with the environment after centuries of abuse may be the last thing we want to do. Mary Shelley’s original mad scientist from the age of Turner should be cautionary tale enough to keep scientists from erupting volcanoes as a cure for past mistakes.
For all the hot air that came out of Copenhagen last month, precious little was accomplished of significance. Not even a mountain of evidence can move world leaders to sacrifice short-term economics in the name of long-term ecology. “The Year Without a Summer” and the “Little Ice Age” may seem like ancient history to us now, but the talents of Turner and Bruegel bring them to us today. They dealt with ice, but it may be the fire next time.