Six Tools You Need for Climate Change Art (and Action)

by Franke James

The sign at Bates College for Franke James' Sept 6th, 2009 workshop

by Franke James, Blog Action Day 2009

Six tools for Climate Change Art? What’s that about? Many people reading this — maybe even you — will claim, “I’m not an artist or an activist. I can’t even draw a straight line… How can I make climate change art?”

Six Tools sign by Franke James

But art (and activism) is NOT about drawing straight lines. It’s about getting the idea that’s in your head — out into the world, so others can see it and understand your point of view. It’s about using your “voice.”

Many people are anxious about climate change and feel powerless. Making art can help you — and the world. Art in all its myriad forms (visual, dance, music, poetry, performance art, direct action and now even flash mobs) has been central to making social change happen. You can be part of it. I want to inspire you to take concrete action. And share your ideas on climate change with friends, family — and possibly even a much wider circle. (I think you’ll also have FUN doing this.)

So, let me share with you my Six Tools for making climate change art. They are intended to help anyone — even the most-analytical-I-can’t-draw-a-straight-line-but-I-do-have-an-opinion kind of person express themselves visually.

Guest Response card from Franke James book launch

What are the Six Tools to make climate change art?

And why were they developed?

Two years ago, I was invited by the McMichael Gallery to present “A Green Winter: Will Global Warming Be Good for Canada?” with the idea that it would give students an example of ‘new media’ climate change art.

So, I started with two very simple ideas.

#1. I wanted the students to understand that artists can make a difference in the world. #2. I wanted to give them the tools to make climate change art on their own — so I wrote down the six tools I rely on. When you see my list of six tools you will nod your head in recognition. These are all familiar tools that everyone can use. We just have to be creative — and judicious — in choosing the right tool to communicate the idea, so that our artwork can be memorable AND inspire action.

Why Just Six Tools?

OK. There are more than Six Tools — but six is a good start to help you structure your thinking. Most importantly, the tools apply to ALL forms of art. For this post, I’ll be talking about collage, but once you understand how the Six Tools work, you’ll see they are the basis of all great art and communication.

green tree illustration by Franke James from Letter to My Future Grandkids in 2020

6 Tools to Make Climate Change Art

green conscience six tools by Franke James

The response to the Six Tools has been very positive. 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 from junior high school to university level in Canada and the USA. A recent climate change camp for teachers resulted in Sparking Your Green Conscience being integrated into a lesson plan for Ontario teachers. It’s now available as a teacher resource on the OTF website.

(At the end of this post are my tips for doing the Six Tools Workshop, on your own, complete with a list of materials required.)

Each workshop starts with a question:

green conscience illustration by Franke James

Do you have a Green Conscience?

Here’s a quick quiz if you want to find out.

I’ve been bothered by my green conscience for awhile and it’s spurred me to do all sorts of things — like selling our only car (an SUV), and challenging City Hall for the right to build a green driveway.

But it also made me curious… I started asking other people what’s bothering theirs… I’ve asked the question on Twitter, talked to students in art workshops, and at many other events. So, I can say confidently that while most people don’t think of themselves as ‘environmentalists’ — almost everyone has a green conscience that bothers them on a daily basis. That little voice saying, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t throw that in the trash, it goes in recycling…’

Knowing that everyone has something that nags at them, I start my workshops with the simple question, “What’s bothering your green conscience?” And I am amazed by how varied the responses are (which you’ll see examples of later on). Using the green conscience question as the focus for their climate change art, I then lead them through the Six Tools — it’s an easy way to help people express ideas visually.

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

Symbols are powerful and they are everywhere! 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?

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

The Human Eye Sees the Future

In the illustration below from Betting on the Future I’ve used the symbol of the human eye again — but this time it’s to communicate the Insurance Industry’s ability (and need) to predict future risk. The clouds floating across the iris relate to weather and climate change.

 Insurance Eyeball illustration by Franke James from Bates College keynote

I’ve shown you how I used four 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.


Here’s an example of how a student used a battery as a symbol to express his “green conscience.”

UC architecture student DJ illustration

The architecture student above says, “My green conscience is bothered by using lights when the sun is up.” Hmmm…. buildings that don’t need lights on in the daytime? What a bright idea! [Six Tools workshop, University of Cincinnati, May 2009].

2. METAPHORS: Make things stick in your brain

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.

illustration by Franke James

In my drawing of the Earth being toasted, the CO2 emissions for 1960 are contrasted with those from 2009, and the goal of 350ppm (which is where we should really be for the health of the planet).


In the workshop example below the student says that her “green conscience is bothered by her love of long showers.”

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

How do you illustrate showers? And long ones at that! The student symbolized time with a watch. Her typography for ‘bothered’ is appropriately agitated. And the water is cut from landscape photos in the shape of water droplets which add a poetic and metaphorical dimension to her art work. I don’t know if it was intended, but the water drops could also be seen as tear drops! [Six Tools workshop, Bates College, September 2009].

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 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. 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?

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 talk 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’

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 recent direct action in Pittsburgh. 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 recent 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.

Doing the Six Tools Workshop on your own

1. Read through the Six Tools which show examples for each tool.
2. Create a collage that answers the question: What’s bothering your green conscience?
3. Review the Six Tools for ideas on how you can express your idea visually
4. Art materials for Collages:
– Stacks of old magazines for visuals. It’s best if they cover a wide range of topics. (While it’s considered “fair use” to use the clipped ads and photos for educational and private purposes, each image is protected by copyright, and can’t be used for artwork that is intended to be sold.)
– Colored construction paper
– Glue sticks, felt-tip markers and scissors!

YOUR WORKSHOP EXAMPLE: Step up to the plate! Show off your climate change art on

On October 24th, people all over the world will participate in the world’s largest International Day of Creative Climate Action. Submit your work to the 350 Art Gallery.
350 logo

Blog Action Day post: Can you make climate change art? And why should you? © 2009 Franke James


– Writing, photographs and illustrations by Franke James, unless otherwise noted.
– Workshop artworks were done by students and workshop participants at the University of Cincinnati, Bates College and at book events in Cincinnati and Toronto.
– Direct action Pittsburgh Bridge video © 2009 Greenpeace
– The 350 logo is a trademark of 350.0rg
– Google map image © 2009 Google Inc.

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