How Art and Design Can Influence the Magical World of Climate Science

WORDS BY Yessenia Funes


On International Transgender Day of Visibility, The Frontline interviews climate scientist and activist Dr. Mika Tosca on how she brings art into the science world.

Mika Tosca, at Grosse Point Lighthouse in Evanston, Illinois.

When I talk about environmental justice, I’m talking about environmental justice for all. This includes people of color, undocumented communities, women, and my fellow queerios.


Though much of the discourse around environmental injustice looks at race and class, some research has shown that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also disproportionately exposed to hazardous air pollutants. (I’ve covered this previous for Autostraddle and Earther.) This deserves more attention, especially on International Transgender Day of Visibility.


What also deserves attention are the transgender scientists, activists, and experts in the climate space working toward liberation for all in their quest to a more just, clean world. The stereotype of the white cis male climate scientist or outdoorsmen is so last decade. It’s 2021, baby, and we’re here to disrupt all sorts of shit.


Welcome to The Frontline, where I’m passing the mic to Mika Tosca, a climate scientist and assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Tosca is devoted to shifting the scientific process to be more inclusive of artists and designers. She’s also dismantling the notion that only cis white dudes get to wear lab coats and study the atmosphere. Sorry, boys, but your time’s up.


This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Yessenia Funes

What got you interested in earth science and the climate crisis?


When I was a kid, I guess you could consider me a “weather weenie.” I was just really interested in forecasting and recording the weather. Hurricane Bob made landfall in New England, and I remember having to shelter through that and just being really fascinated by the whole thing. I have always been interested in weather and the implications of changes to that. So, when I got to undergrad, there was no meteorology degree, but I did take a meteorology course with a grad student who was teaching it. After the class, I went up to her and I was like, Do you need anyone to help you out with your research?


I was hired as an undergraduate researcher. She was studying gravity waves over forest canopy, and my job was to climb up onto this large observing tower, make sure that all the instruments were working, and that all the data was downloading correctly. That got me really psyched about studying the climate as a career. Shortly after that, I decided to go to grad school. And the rest is history.


When did it cement for you that all of our weather and climate were becoming more extreme and urgent? That the climate crisis had arrived?


That was definitely in undergrad. My senior thesis thesis was on declining snowfall in New England because of climate change. Keep in mind that this was like 2005. And so I think that public discourse and understanding of climate change was very much influenced by the Bush administration, which was doing its darndest to silence climate scientists and folks who were speaking out about climate change and the urgency of it. It was in that environment that I was like, This is a problem. It was my political coming of age, too, as a 20-year-old to realize that one political party was really invested in not doing anything about climate change. And I think we all know what party that is.


Tell me about the intersection where you work with art and climate science. What does it actually look like in practice?


There are two prongs to this. The first is that art, design, and aesthetics are really effective with communicating climate change. Reaching the imaginations of the human general population is really important if we’re hoping to foment solutions to the climate crisis. I’m inspired by the work, for example, of Afrofuturists like N.K. Jemisin or Octavia Butler who constructed these worlds in the wake of environmental destruction.


The other angle I’m currently very invested in exploring is how art and design can not only communicate the climate crisis, but also help scientists do better science and create better scientific knowledge. And I’m using “better” here in a subjective way. Designers and artists, for example, when they begin their design making process, always start with a human engagement step, where they spend a lot of time talking to people, such as stakeholders or potential users of whatever designed object is being worked on. I think that the human engagement step helps facilitate a design process that’s more efficient and achieves, I would argue, better results. This has long been a tenant of design making. And I think that scientists would be well-served if we also adopted that methodology—if we augmented the scientific method with this human engagement step that artists and designers regularly engage with.


I read a lot of studies for work, and there’s almost always some kind of visual element like a map or graph. That’s also an area of interest for you, right? Scientists transforming the way they communicate their findings to the public?


Right. Exactly. And taking it a step further with the scientific knowledge building process. It can not only be useful for communicating to the general public, but it can also be useful for communicating with other scientists or among stakeholders invested in the scientific process. Every artist I’ve talked to is super down to collaborate with scientists on this communication aspect, but they’d love to be involved in the scientific knowledge making process from the beginning. Because who knows? If you involve artists, designers, and creative people at the beginning, you may actually end up with a totally different scientific result.


Oftentimes, scientists are creating scientific knowledge for other scientists, and it doesn’t translate. I sometimes wonder—because the climate crisis is so urgent—if that’s misguided, if we actually need to reorient the whole process to achieving results or building knowledge that’s going to be more useful or translatable or accessible or better.


Accessibility is so important when we think about the people who are most impacted by the climate crisis. You wrote this story for Eos in 2019 where you quoted biologist and author David George Haskell: “Once we—collectively—have an integrated sense of aesthetics, we can begin to discern what is beautiful and what is broken about a place, and, from there, I believe we can begin to form an objective—or near-objective—foundation for ethical discernment. Answers emerge from the community of life itself, filtered through human experience and consciousness.”


How can we translate this thinking to scientific research, specifically when thinking about the places people live now and who is afforded “beautiful” places and who is afforded “broken” places?


If we can re-imagine our species—our human experiment, if you will—to be more aligned with nature, whatever that means, that would serve us well in trying to build a better world. If you ask people, Are you a part of nature, or are you not a part of nature?, most people would say that they are a part of nature. I do this at the beginning of all of my public presentations and everyone goes, Yeah, definitely part of nature. But then if you ask them, What are some words that you associate with natural and words you associate with unnatural?, the words that they associate with the word “unnatural” are always human-made things: plastics, capitalism, concrete, cities.


I do think humans have separated ourselves from nature, but we long to be part of it. I think we need to reinvest in that future, re-imagine that future. A lot of this separation of humanity from nature is a colonial idea. If we can reimagine how we interact with and live within the natural world, then I think that that will absolutely help guide us toward solutions that are equitable.


You brought up that certain communities get to live in nicer places. Environmental racism is a huge problem and something that goes back to the whole conversation about our relationship to and connection with the natural world. Some of these places are just kind of forgotten by society, and they’re polluted. They have freeways that run criss-crossing through them. They have large above-ground waste dumps. They have oil and gas refineries. We have to understand the problem, how we got here, and then, use that understanding and newly invigorated imagination to come up with solutions to it that are going to work for everybody—that are sustainable, equitable, and habitable.


You’ve mentioned books and music. Do you consider TV and film a form of this art and climate science? I saw you tweeting about The Expanse, and I got really excited because I’m watching it right now—and I’m obsessed.


Yeah, huge role. The opening credits of The Expanse show New York City and where the United Nations headquarters are. They show the water rising, and if you look really closely, you can see that the Statue of Liberty is actually below sea level, and they’ve constructed this giant sea wall around it. I think that that imagery is so powerful. I love it. I think it’s really subtle, too. They don’t make a big deal about it. It’s not explicitly talked about, but it’s just there, and it’s the world, and then it goes on. So I do think TV and film go hand in hand with books. I think they can really help spark the imagination and help us build futures.


TV and film reaches more people than books and writing and essays. I do think it’s really important. I have a lot of students who do video, new media, and film work. People’s imaginations are engaged in different ways. Some people are really inspired by videos. Some people are really inspired by paintings or hanging artwork. Some people are really inspired by reading about it. We shouldn’t limit ourselves, and we should try to reach everyone in every way everywhere.


Mika, we’re nearing the end of Women’s History Month, and it’s clear that women are leading the way both when we look at the activism and the science space. Talk to me about how your life experience and perspective informs your work and the urgency that you bring to it.


This is really important to me because, oftentimes, in science we’re taught that we should leave our politics and identity at the door. I think that’s really offensive. Our identities inform our work. When people say that the science should be “objective,” I have a hard time buying that because the default identity of a scientist is this cis white man. There is identity in the work scientists do, but it’s just that that identity had never been questioned. Now that you’ve got other people having an amplified say in these things, I think a lot of the old guard feels threatened.


It’s so important that we bring our entire self to our work. In my case, as a trans person and as a trans woman, in particular, I’m deeply invested and an activist for queer liberation or just liberation, in general, of people and identities. That proximity also informs how I approach the climate crisis. It’s not an esoteric scientific question. It’s a question of liberation. There’s environmental racism. Across the globe, there are reports that women and non-men will be affected by climate change more so than men.


Women and gender identity and proximity to resources inform how different populations in different communities are going to be affected by the climate crisis. So, if you only have cis white men working on the problems, then you’re not going to get to solutions that benefit other communities, right? It’s extremely important that we include our entire life experience and our entire identity and our whole self in our work.

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