Six Tools for Climate Change Art

by Franke James

Six Tools header with illustrations by by Franke James

When I put words and pictures together to show people how I felt about climate change, that’s when many people responded…

Here are my Six Tools for making climate change art. Since 2007, I’ve seen non-artists (and artists) create powerful and expressive artworks using the Six Tools method. I’ve spoken to teachers and students in Canada and the USA.

Click on the links below to see examples of the Six Tools in action, and learn how you can use them for your artwork:
Six Tools 1: Symbols by Franke James
Six Tools 2: Metaphors by Franke James
Six Tools 3: Witness by Franke James
Six Tools 4: Culture Change by Franke James
Six Tools 5: Human Nature by Franke James
Six Tools 6: Action by Franke James

1. Symbols: How to show climate change when you can’t see it

Symbols are all around us, communicating important information instantly. Even people who don’t think of themselves as “visual”, recognize symbols (think of traffic signs). They are visual shorthand. With a little imagination, we can use symbols to tell a powerful climate change story in a matter of seconds. In the illustration below I’ve combined two universally recognized symbols.

CO2 stop sign and statue of liberty illustration by Franke James

The Statue of Liberty holds up a Stop Sign

The stop sign and the Statue of Liberty are not new, but the juxtaposition of the two (with CO2 replacing the word “stop”) makes you look at them in a new way. It is ironic that the Statue of Liberty really is green. Will the United States embrace their giant green woman and lead the world in reducing CO2 emissions?

Sewer grate in the sky photo-illustration by Franke James, using Greenpeace Tar Sands Sky photo

We Use the Sky as a Sewer

We are dumping CO2 into the sky as though it was an open, limitless sewer. But the melting ice caps, acidification of the oceans, and rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere (nearing 390 ppm), are somber clues that we must cut emissions now, before it’s too late.

The Visionary Human Eye

The eye is a symbol that has been used throughout art history to great effect. My “eyeball” illustration below is from A Green Winter. In that real-life story, Freakonomics author and rogue economist Steven Levitt calls me a “visionary” for worrying about global warming. I was flabbergasted and responded, “Excuse me — I’m a visionary for worrying about global warming??” I don’t know if a camera would have captured the look of dumbfoundedness on my face, but the bloodshot eyeball/globe quickly communicates how I felt.

 Eyeball illustration by Franke James from A Green Winter, 2007

I’ve shown you how I used some common symbols in my visual essays. Before you start to create your climate change artwork, take a few minutes to identify the key symbols you can use.


Green Conscience Workshop: Belleville, Ontario

Consuming Too Much Stuff

2. METAPHORS: Make things stick

Metaphors make things stick! For most of us, it is more memorable to think of global warming as the ‘elephant in the room’, than to read a sentence that talks about global warming being ever-present but ignored. With images, we can have an emotional connection that makes them stick in our brains.

illustration by Franke James

As artists, we can also merge metaphors and statistics to create memorable and impactful images.
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In my animation of the Earth being toasted, the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere today, are contrasted with those from twenty years ago, and the goal of 350ppm (which is where we should really be for the health of the planet).

Green Conscience Workshop: Canadian Ecology Centre

Convenience packaging

3. WITNESS: Help the viewer see what you see


Witnessing is a very powerful activity because it can be done so many ways — and it is the workhorse of creating visual content. You can witness climate change by photographing the world around you. You can also witness by interviewing people (just like news reporters do)

Witnessing is a very powerful activity because it can be done so many ways — and it is the workhorse of creating visual content. You can witness by photographing the world around you. You can also witness by interviewing people — as I did in this illustration of my two brothers-in-law below from My SUV and Me Say Goodbye. I chronicled their reactions to the news of us selling our only car, an SUV…

My SUV and Me Say Goodbye illustration by Franke James

Witnessing a Propane Explosion: 12,000 Sitting Ducks
The illustration below is from my visual essay 12,000 Sitting Ducks about a propane depot explosion in August 2008 which was a few miles from our home. Although our house shook, I did not get any photos of the event. So I turned to Google Maps as my authoritative witness. Sure enough, the next day Google still had the original satellite photo of the site online. This is just one an example of how we can merge metaphors and the act of witnessing in the same piece.
Sitting Duck illustration by Franke James

Sitting Duck illustration by Franke James


Here’s an example of how a student effectively and cleverly used the automobiles owned by his family to witness his “green conscience.” I wonder what his family thinks…

Bates College student at Six Tools workshop holds up his collage; photo by Franke James

Fortunately, three of the four are hybrids! [Six Tools workshop, Bates College, September 2009].

4. CULTURE CHANGE: What will we lose?

Climate change is not just about science. It’s also about culture change. How will a warmer world change our culture and sense of identity? Will hockey-loving Canada become Florida North? Will future generations view our CO2 spewing vehicles with as much repulsion as other bad habits, like drunk driving

Climate change is not just about science. It’s also about culture change. Will future generations quiz us as about the animal on our Canadian two dollar coin?

tim hortons cup and twoonie

Will Canada become Florida North?

Canada is world-renowned as a land of snow, and ice and hockey. How will our identity change if climate refugees flee to Canada?

illustration of flamingo by franke james


Matt Anthony, a product designer taking my workshop in Cincinnati says, “I feel bad when other countries want to be like US.” You’ll see he’s colored in the US with stars and stripes.

illustration by matt

Author, Thomas Friedman expressed the same disappointment about the lost green opportunity for developing countries in “Hot, Flat and Crowded.” What a shame that they are more often mimicking North American bad habits than developing new green technologies.

5. HUMAN NATURE: Can you touch a nerve?

Is it human nature to procrastinate, to deny problems, and to be selfish? Exploring the unspoken behaviors and beliefs we share, can lead to very powerful climate change art. For example, the attitude of “I’m all right, Jack” is a common thread when climate change is discussed

Human nature and our inherent selfishness is a favorite topic of mine in climate change art. Once you start to look around, you’ll see it’s everywhere!

footprint from a Green Winter

This image is from my story, “A Green Winter: Will Global Warming Be Good For Canada?” It talks about the layoffs in January 2007 that resulted from the lack of snow — and the almost automatic reaction that many of us have — including me, “I’m glad I didn’t buy a full season ski pass!” That attitude of “I’m all right, Jack.” is a thread that goes through much of society when climate change is discussed. Will Canada suffer the worst consequences of global warming? Unlikely. It will be the poorer countries below the equator that are the worst hit by droughts, floods and food shortages.

Our Quiet Conversations

The next three illustrations are examples of the quiet conversations each of us has with our conscience. They are part of my essay No One Will Know, Except You which ironically tested my green conscience.

No One Will Know

No One Will Know shower

no one will know chicken illustration by Franke James


Matt Anthony expresses the inner conflict he feels from trying to be both green and eat healthy!

illustration by matt

Matt say, “I feel bad when I try to eat healthier, but end up wasting more.”

6. ACTION: Do something green and tell the world about it

The Art of ‘Selling our SUV’

Taking action to reduce carbon emissions will give you a visceral sense of your personal power. Combine that action with storytelling, and it becomes the “power” tool of climate change art. Do something green — even small green actions will do — and then weave a story about that act. In my case

But my favorite ‘tool’ of all is number six: Action.

As artists, we can turn our lives into works of art. We can do something green — even small green actions will do — and then weave a story about that act. In my case, I’m making art and stories about green actions we’re taking. We sold our car in February 2007, and I documented it in My SUV and Me Say Goodbye.

selling suv decision

The Art of ‘Planting our Driveway’

Because we didn’t have a car anymore we didn’t need a driveway — or so we thought. Paradise Unpaved tells the story of how built our green driveway and the obstacles we had to overcome.

Paradise Unpaved

Do something Green and document it! Make a story. Draw pictures. Make a video. Tell the world what you’ve done and why.

Very persuasive climate change art can be created by doing something green — and then documenting it in words and pictures. Below is a Greenpeace video from a direct action in Pittsburgh in 2009. What I like about this video is how it gives us insight into who the activists are and why they are risking legal prosecution, and their lives, to speak out on climate change.

Greenpeace activist from Pittsburgh Bridge Direct Action:

“I just want to be able to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say that I knew what the problem was and I did something about it.”

There are many shades of activism. Taking action on climate change covers a spectrum as wide as from black to white. For some people it will be making climate change art — and for others it will be engaging in direct actions with groups such as Greenpeace. The important thing is to understand where you fit on the activism spectrum. For me personally, my biggest hammer is creating climate change art. What about you?

Skim through the Six Tools again and think of activist examples that you’ve read about in the news. Analyze how they are using them to communicate their messages in powerful ways. My post Can artists wake up people to climate change? features a performance art piece created by photographer Spencer Tunick and Greenpeace France. It is just one example of climate change art that uses all of the six tools to brilliant effect.

Franke James merges science, art and storytelling to inspire people to take action and “do the hardest thing first” for the planet. Franke uses her skills as an artist, photographer and writer to create visual essays on environmental and social issues. She is a speaker and the author of two award-winning books, Bothered By My Green Conscience and Dear Office-Politics.

Six Tools for Climate Change Art © 2007-2010 Franke James

Photographs, illustrations, videography and writing by Franke James, MFA, except where noted.

6 Responses: 5 Comments and One Tweet

  • prashanth says:

    hi franke james

    i am moved by u’r work environment issues
    i’ll definitely take part in this work as it is most important work to be done by any human on our earth. without protecting environment we are not going to live and this will results in collapse of life on earth as it is most dangerous than nuclear weapon.
    and once again thank you for u’r work to protect environment.

    – prashanth,

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  • Osman says:

    I wish there were a way to share the pictures individually…i really like your “we use the sky as a sewer” piece and wanted to share it on my fb page but dont wanna just swipe it without consent


  • Franke James says:


    Thanks for asking. Copyright is really important to artists. Actually in that case, the photo in the background is not mine so it’s better to send you one that I have control over distributing. I’ll send you a link to that same image with a different photo in the background.

    When it’s an image that I have illustrated, it’s fine to use an image or two on Facebook with this credit: “illustration copyright Franke James”.


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