Big Problem, Small Form: Climate Change Poetry

Environment, Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

Climate change can seem overwhelming. It’s so big, and responding to it will involve more than individual actions, so it’s easy to feel discouraged or fearful. It’s also tempting to simply deny that it’s happening and hope for the best. In This Changes Everything: Climate Change Vs. Capitalism, Naomi Klein writes about how easy it is for us to “look for a split second” and then look away, joke about it, “tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever,” etc. She writes, “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” Obviously, this denial does not solve the problem.

Poetry works against this denial in a variety of ways. Some poets simply describe the losses we face. Risa Denenberg’s “Ice Would Suffice” (2017), for instance, emphasizes how “species are lost, / spotted frogs / and tufted puffins forsaken” and observes how we remain “heedless of lacking space / or how long / our makeshift planet will host us.” From its title’s reference to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920), a poem about how the world might end, to its emphasis on failure and loss, Denenberg’s poem demands that readers face our own human decline and likely extinction.

Photo by Brent Olson on

Others, like Craig Santos Perez’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Glacier (after Wallace Stevens)” (2016) connect scientific information and emotional responses. He establishes melting glaciers as a scientific topic in lines such as these: “The glacier absorbed greenhouse gases. / We are a large part of the biosphere.” But he also establishes this as an emotional topic, asking readers to consider what they are afraid of – “The terror of change / Or the terror of uncertainty” – but not to stop with fear.

Humans and animals 
Are kin. 
Humans and animals and glaciers 
Are kin.

This is a poem about science and engineering (“O vulnerable humans, / Why do you engineer sea walls?”) but also about feelings and connections. We humans cannot deal with climate change without acknowledging our kinship to the rest of the world.

Sometimes poetry is even used to communicate climate science directly, as in Greg Johnson’s project of translating the 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) into haiku. This series addresses what we know about the history of earth, air, water, ice, and fire; how these elements meet each other and we develop models to understand; and what the future may hold. The haiku form makes these short poems both reflective and blunt.

One haiku from Greg Johnson’s series summarizing the 2013 IPCC report, accompanied by a watercolor also created by Greg Johnson.

This particular haiku and image stand out to me. Its matter-of-fact language (“Burning fuel, farming / trap heat”) places this clearly in the realm of everyday reality; this is not arguable. Its vivid verb choice of “sour” feels particularly negative; it’s a visceral choice and one that emphasizes not only my individual response but humanity’s relationship to the ocean. And the more epic language of the final line (“beyond human ken”) is appropriate to the scope of the problem and, again, places the emphasis on the relationship between human and ocean. If it is beyond our ken, it is something we not only cannot access or use but possibly something we cannot understand. That is an almost incomprehensible loss to consider.

This project provides a way to understand the report’s findings in a distinct way, one that obviously loses the nuance and details of the nitty-gritty scientific information, but one that gains instead an emotional impact that the IPCC report lacks. Perhaps more scientific information should be presented as haiku and not just in long reports.

For more on science & poetry for National Poetry Month, check out these previous posts:

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