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This article is the latest in our series #Art4Climate, a joint initiative by the UNFCCC and Julie’s Bicycle on the work of artists who make the issue of climate change more accessible and understandable by featuring it in their work.

Many books have been written about climate change, including works of non-fiction and fiction. A new book by a Margret Boysen, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, falls into a category of its own. “Alice, the Zeta Cat and Climate Change” is a fairytale story inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” which explains climate science with the help of parables and metaphors that break the science down into bite-sized chunks of knowledge.

The beginning of the book is almost identical to Lewis Carroll’s tale. On a school field trip to Potsdam’s Telegraph Hill, the real-world figure Alice runs after a mysterious white rabbit – and falls into a hole, gliding past shelves of books. Like Carroll’s Alice, she also lands safely at the bottom, and pursues the rabbit into an underground maze.

What then happens is quite different. The hole is the ventilation shaft of a climate research institute’s supercomputer. From here on follows a journey through the virtual world of computer models, from tropical rainforests to the ice of Antarctica.

For the most part, Alice appears to herself as a giant immersed in a universe of climate models. These models range from calculations of past climates, including ice ages, to scary future climate scenarios in which the world is unbearably hot and barren. Within the sequences, Alice gets to meet many strange characters who themselves are the products of scientific observation and calculation, for example Lady Celsius and Prince Carbon. The characters explain to Alice who they are what they do in simple, colorful language.

The book also features a host of allegorical animal characters, many of whom are confused about the real nature of climate change and who develop their own more or less absurd theories of what it is and what to do about it. One creature is a particularly wise animal: The cat Zeta, who explains to Alice how to avoid dangerous climatic change the world is heading towards.

“Carroll’s Cheshire Cat only tells Alice that right and left do not matter: wherever the girl turns, she’ll meet lunatics. The mathematical-metaphorical cat Zeta, however, tells Alice about paths that lead out of the catastrophe,” scientist Margret  Boysen says, alluding to the cat’s ability to make any scientific fact or phenomenon easy to understand.

The Climate Debate as a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

As in Alice in Wonderland, the book features a mad hatter’s tea party, at which an array of bizarre animals wonder aloud if climate change is real, mostly dismissing it as an unproven theory. The mad hatter in Boysen’s book sports a top hat with the inscription “BAU”, which stands for “business as usual”. This alludes to scenarios in which economies keep on burning heat-trapping fossil fuels as they have done in the past.

 

 The mad hatter's tea party depicted in the original version of Alice in Wonderland

At the tea party, a journalist takes notes, and concludes that the debate is still wide open, because the views about what is happening and what needs to be done are so contradictory.

This episode partly reflects Margret Boysen’s own experiences at the Potsdam Inistute, where as the institute’s press officer, the scientist witnessed how media reporters snapped up the arguments of self-declared “experts” with little or no scientific background, or those of scientists whose work did not make it into serious, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

According to Boysen, this army of self-declared pundits spouting falsehood and half-truths in the media greatly contributed to the decline in trust of the public in the genuine scientific community and to the polarization of the climate debate.

The reason for Margret Boysen to write the book was even more serious and personal, though. Around five years ago, she saw scientists becoming ever more frequently the victims of coordinated campaigns to discredit their work and even death threats. One such prominent scientist to receive threats was Margret Boysen’s own husband - Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, renowned for first proposing the limit of a maximum 2 degrees Celsius global average temperature rise.

 “I felt that science itself stood on the brink of credibility, as it was being discredited by lobbyists,” she says. “Another motivation was the issue of guilt and fear, and the realization that feeling responsible for a huge potential environmental disaster like global anthropogenic warming is rather too much to deal with for the human brain which until quite recently has not had to consider the evolutionary necessity to care about the future of a whole planet. That's why I wrote an entertaining book: Something people would not immediately shy away from because they felt overwhelmed. And I wanted to give people an idea of what purpose climate modelling actually serves,” she says.

Book author and scientist Margret Boysen

More than 50 scientists provided their expertise for the work by Margret Boysen, which was first written in German. A limited number of copies are available for visitors to the Potsdam Institute, and Boysen is looking for an English-language publisher to make the book more widely accessible.

The Potsdam Institute’s Broader Links to the Art World

As an expert in climate outreach and education, Margret Boysen leads the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research’s Artist in Residence programme, which regularly brings writers and other artists to Potsdam for a few months’ exchange between the arts and science. Her Institute is frequently contacted by artists, but not all can be catered for.

“Many would like to work with us to a greater extent than we are able to offer,” she says. This is a good sign. It means that artists care. And for us it's a good thing to reach out to society. Let's face it: Science is stranger to most people than art,” Boysen says.

The institute’s programme, which offers one artist per year a two month stay, is just one of several links to the arts world. There is also extensive cooperation with musicians of the State Opera Berlin, for example.

“It’s not just about being an artist or a being a scientist and how they could work perfectly together, it is about everybody. We all need to speak out about what is happening and understand how we can be part of a societal and economic transformation which can no longer be postponed - for everybody's sake,” Margret Boysen says.

(Image at top of story: Book cover of “Alice, the Zeta Cat and Climate Change” by the Bulgarian artist Iassen Ghiuselev)

For more information on the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the book, see here.

#Art4Climate is a joint initiative by the UNFCCC and Julie’s Bicycle to spot and propose super recent and new works in this broad field, but we also want to hear from you! Please send any proposals for showcasing to newsroom@unfccc.int or Chiara@juliesbicycle.com.
Please amplify our web posts with Twitter hashtag #Art4Climate and #COP23!

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