Who wanted to go inside on a sunny Colorado afternoon and see an art exhibit on global warming? It was a tough sell with the temperature a perfect sixty-five degrees and the garden screaming for attention. The trouble was, it was November 10. So everyone in Colorado, not to mention the Rocky Mountain West, was already at the global warming exhibit. More accurately, we were in it.
Past the newsstands bearing the front-page headline “Let It Snow, Please” stood the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, home to Weather Report: Art and Climate Change, a collaborative effort between artists and scientists. Near the entrance was a pile of postcards depicting a stocky, furry, adorable rodent called a pika. It lives in the Rockies at elevations above eight thousand feet, hibernating snug beneath the deep winter snows. When visitors picked up a postcard, the speaker above them emitted the pika’s signature warning squeak-bark. The display informed us that pikas have disappeared from 30 percent of the sites in the Great Basin where they were known to exist during the last century. They could become the first creature to go entirely extinct due to global warming.
Everyone at that exhibit, which was entitled Pika Alert, looked like they wished they’d stayed home pulling weeds.
Farther into the museum, a videotaped conversation that occurred a couple of months before among environmentally minded Boulderites comprised The Unfinished Journey of Carl Linnaeus. Their dreadlocked and hemp-capped heads contained an awful lot of information about global warming. One spoke about terawatts of energy hitting the Earth; another pointed out that he has cut his electricity bill by 90 percent since he started keeping the indoor temperature to forty degrees (which should do it) and keeping himself warm while working by erecting a little dome over his lower body, computer, and a ceramic heater. (“My neck gets a little cool,” he allowed.)
There were diagrams of the terrible things that will happen to the coast of Bangladesh when the oceans rise, and beautiful photographs of Alaska’s Porcupine caribou herd (which lost thousands of its calves when higher than normal spring-runoff floodwaters swept them downstream).
Time for a break. Outdoors, the sun beat down and the exhibits continued — they were all over town and in the surrounding foothills as well. In Arapahoe Glacier: What Goes Around Comes Around, a chunk of Boulder’s own frozen water supply had been sawed off, brought down into town, and displayed on the lawn in front of the Boulder Public Library. The ice would have melted in a few days except that it was in a solar-powered refrigerator surrounded by heat-deflecting aluminum screens. Hardly anyone stopped to look. Maybe the enormity of global warming is too much to allow in. It really was uncomfortably warm outside. A year ago, several of Colorado’s ski areas had one hundred inches of snow at the end of November. This year, opening dates were being pushed back and local ski-area officials had been photographed on a little patch of snow, looking like penguins on a too-small iceberg.
Back in the museum, there was a comfortable bench in front of an exhibit called When It Changed. Joel Sternfeld’s contribution was a simple series of fifteen candid portraits of participants at the 2005 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal. The subjects were from every corner of the planet. Their expressions weren’t dramatic, but they did not look happy. The faces on the wall registered the early dawning of realization and deep dismay, like they were in the midst of hearing — really hearing — news so bad you couldn’t look away, so bad you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.