Can artists save the world?

Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and others respond to climate change

A large, parasite-like form has appeared on the façade of 6 Burlington Gardens, London. It is the installation CO2morrow, by the artists Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni, for the exhibition "Earth: Art of a Changing World", which has just opened at the Royal Academy of Arts. The show presents the creative responses of 35 international artists to the pressing issue of climate change, just days before the big summit in Copenhagen is due to start.

CO2morrow's spectacular shape is the result of a cutting-edge technological innovation from California. It is made from recyclable carbon fibre and is based on a new carbon-scrubbing molecule. Commissioned by the National Trust for this exhibition, it shows, using a light display, fluctuating levels of CO2 in the atmosphere at specific national heritage sites.

"These molecules have the power to capture and retain carbon dioxide," Marianantoni tells me. "They are being produced in tonnes, with the main aim to be positioned on the top of power stations' chimneys. Scientists are currently working on a version for cars."

Like the whole RA exhibition, it raises fundamental questions about the responsibilities of artists in contemporary society and the relationship between art and technology.

"New technology is part of an artist's palette, as oil paints were during the Renaissance," explains Lutyens. "In a world where it is harnessed by corporations and by the military, it is important for artists to harness that same tool and use it for good."

The combination of science and art "helps to draw people's attention", continues the artist, "providing a wider view of what's going on. For example, the hi-tech sensors used in this installation to collect data extend our nervous system into the world around us. Without this kind of access, we would be blinder."

The artists exhibiting in this seminal show are, in the words of the co-curator David Buckland, "going to the edge before us". From Antony Gormley, with his striking crowd of clay figures staring at the viewer, to Mona Hatoum's threatening, cage-like steel globe; from the evocative island project by Antti Laitinen to the poignant journey to the Arctic reported by Sophie Calle, each issues his or her personal warning.

"There is no plan B for failure at Copenhagen, only plan A, and A stands for action," the UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, said recently. Six hundred digital clocks hanging on the wall of the RA, hauntingly ticking, help us to internalise the message.

How then to respond to these threats? Some artists have found their answer in a return to emotions. "My message is about love, nature and respect for nature," says Tracey Emin, commenting on her embroidered piece with figures of birds, flowers and insects. "For this work, I was inspired by a story that my father told me. At my father's wedding, my grandfather told his son's bride: 'Draw yourself a cross and in that cross put a volcano, a tidal wave, an avalanche and a hurricane. Now go and throw yourself at anyone.' "

Asked about their hopes for the coming climate conference, some artists are optimistic. But, as Emin remarks, "It is absolutely down to individual people to try to change something. After this show, I'll go home and I'll do stuff -- I'll turn my lights off and so on."

Leaving the Royal Academy, I hope that passers-by will raise their heads and wonder at that strange object nesting on the building's façade. Cycling, I feel I'm doing at least something to join the effort. And echoing in my ears is a line of a song from a video installation in the show: "What if we got it wrong?"

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.