How do you effectively shift climate change from a technical discourse reserved for experts to something that is tangible and relatable to the common citizen? You can start by painting lines on walls.  

Sustainia’s Senior Advisor Dida Hartvig Jørgensen recently exhibited a photo installation with white lines ‘painted’ onto some of Copenhagen’s most beloved landmarks, showing where sea levels could rise to under different scenarios of warming. The project, titled Land Under Water, was a collaboration with Cultor Studio that aimed to change how people thought about the future of climate change.

Having co-founded Cultor Studio with friends in early 2017, Dida and her fellow creatives have since explored how they can harmonise science and artistry to effectively communicate the climate crisis and inspire meaningful behaviour change. Cultor Studio’s Land Under Water photography collection was recently exhibited at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, having complemented the summit ́s climate-focused agenda.



Observation as inspiration
Over the past two years, Dida and her Cultor Studio team observed growing public awareness of climate change in Denmark, but that awareness did not equate with understanding or changed behaviours.  

“We were frustrated with how climate science was being communicated, as it was failing to engage people and move them to action”, Dida explains. 

The gravity of their observation was intensified by the fact that climate change has not abruptly disrupted lifestyles in Denmark, making it relatively easy for people to dismiss the problem as one that is distant in time or proximity, and to underestimate the urgency for personal action. As we face highly-complex climate problems, with consequences that will manifest far out in the future, the necessary actions must be taken now if they are to mitigate the slow but dire processes of climate change. 

Dida highlights that “there was no visual representation of climate change, nor any attempt to create an emotional connection to the issue”. 

Spurred by these observations, Dida dove into behaviour change analyses, and uncovered that people are wired to prioritize short-term gains and struggle with long-term orientation, where threats that are not seen or felt do not trigger action. It became clear that Cultor Studio had to elicit an emotional response to unlock climate action at the individual level. They proceeded to explore the question: how can cultural actors and creative industries frame climate change differently from politicians and scientists?



Getting the science right
Cultor Studio focused its efforts on communicating sea-level rise and its direct impacts on architecture, culture and lifestyles. The creative output consisted of indicating the projected heights of sea-level rise, under different global warming scenarios, on iconic buildings in Copenhagen. Insisting the creative output be based on sound scientific data, Dida consulted climate experts to understand the various methods for estimating sea-level rise and to verify her calculations, having utilised the committed sea level rise approach. 

“I wanted the work to reflect the scientific reality and to make sense to people emotionally. By incorporating Copenhagen’s unique architecture, and the cultural heritage that it symbolises, people could be made to feel the losses that are at stake, and to crave preservation.” 

Dida Hartvig Jørgensen, Senior Advisor, Sustainia

Getting the emotional response right
In showing that current lifestyles and policies are not future-proofing Copenhagen as a city and as a culture, Dida and her team were aware that a poor choice of creative expression could provoke entirely counterproductive emotional responses. 

“We sensed that communicating climate change as something overly-complex or dystopian would paralyse people and provoke apathy rather than action, inhibiting their imagination and creative problem-solving in turn”, Dida clarifies. 

Cultor Studio hence attempted to make their audience connect both intellectually and emotionally with the climate change topic, striking the optimal balance between urgency and positivity. Making the consequences of climate change physical with local landmarks, the team aspired to transform the consequences from previously-abstract concepts to tangible threats, which can be averted if the right choices are made today. With this approach, Cultor Studio endeavored to shift the connotations of climate action away from “personal sacrifices” and toward “taking the opportunities to do things better, and to preserve what we care about”.  



A personal touch
Dida’s personal experiences, and her fascination with the relationships between land and sea, pivoted Cultor Studio to focus on sea-level rise for the project. Dida reflects on conversations with her grandfather, an engineer involved in coastal security and erosion management, where he would explain the challenges strictly in geological terms, without mention of the socio-economic impacts on coastal communities. Through these experiences, Dida soon learned that experts can alienate those who are not in their field with technical language and one-sided perspectives of climate issues, and that the human side of climate challenges should not be neglected, but rather leveraged, in communication efforts. 

Ambition to iterate
The exhibition received positive feedback, where Copenhageners expressed surprise and a newfound understanding of climate change and its scope in their own city. For Dida, this signaled that Cultor Studio had successfully engaged the audience in a new way, motivating her to replicate Land Under Water in other cities. Going forward, she insists that the collection be extended with photographs featuring city-specific landmarks and tailored sea-level estimations, in order to cultivate the same emotional response within other audiences. We are curious to see which cities will host the project hereafter, as it evolves into a greater series of creative outputs with greater impact.  

Photographs courtesy of Nikolaj Thaning Rentzmann