Climate Change: A Conversation About Art, Investment and Science

02/26/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

Ice Cave Sculpture by Henry Richardson

As temperatures drop to recording breaking lows, climate change is once again pushed to the forefront of our global conversation.

I recently spoke to three people who approach the issue of climate change from a diverse array of perspectives and disciplines. Dr. David Lea is a Professor of Earth Science and Member of the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara; Jochen Wermuth is a supporter of Greenpeace and is the Founding Partner and CIO of Wermuth Asset Management, a German investment advisory firm that focuses on sustainable growth and clean technologies; and Henry Richardson is a pioneering world-renowned sculptor whose work calls attention to the issue of melting Arctic glaciers. We spoke about the nexus of issues surrounding climate change, the technologies and finances that we are developing to combat this issue and the role that the artistic community has in this fight.

Tell us a bit about your work, process and research?

DAVID LEA: My research is focused on using past climate records to probe how the climate system behaves under different climate regimes. For example, the peak of the last Ice Age, about 20,000 years ago, and the Pliocene Epoch, about 2.5 to 5 million years ago, represent times of extreme cold and relative warmth, respectively. By reconstructing climate during these extremes, we can unravel how the climate system responds to both internal and external forces. I am particularly focused on the tropical Pacific and its role in climate change. We are working on a new ocean core from southeast of the Galapagos Islands that will provide a detailed record of climate from this region over the last 600,000 years.

JOCHEN WERMUTH: As a German family office, we have decided to only undertake investments with a positive impact on the environment and joined the "100% Impact" family office network. We have also joined the movement and committed to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energies and resource efficient companies.

For us, with a focus on resource efficiency, we do not see a conflict between doing good and getting profits - on the contrary, we have achieved returns of 20% per annum both in listed securities with a "divestinvest" portfolio, with an "impact investing" activist portfolio pushing companies to improve resource efficiency and fight corruption with private equity investments in resource efficient companies in the EU which we help to sell their products to emerging markets who often consume four times as much energy as Germany, with achieved top-line growth of 50% per annum and a positive impact on the environment.

On our charitable giving side we are a supporter of Greenpeace Russia, UK and Germany; and have participated on a German-French Arte TV program. As much oil is being spilled into the Arctic Ocean from Russia, as BP's Horizon Oil well spilled - some 5 million tons per year - without there being much press coverage about it.

HENRY RICHARDSON: For my new series, based on the ice forms in Iceland, I have traveled to the glaciers and ice beaches to observe how the light goes through the glaciers, how the ocean carves the forms of ice, how the light from the winter sun reflects through the materials. This series of sculptures are reminders of the long-term systemic problems humans face as we change the chemistry of our planet.

The ice forms are truly abstract forms, and arrive at the confluence of my educational background as a geology major and my maturing as an artist to explore long term issues confronting humanity. In several decades the ice forms of Iceland as in other parts of the world will disappear due to the changes in our climate. It is my intention to assert that this change will occur, and how we respond over the decades will have a profound effect on humans and other lifeforms on our planet.

How did you become acquainted with Henry and his work?

DAVID LEA: I met Henry when we were both geology majors at Haverford College. I still remember that Henry had a special aesthetic about how he looked at geology. I served as Henry's field assistant on one memorable trip. Later, he asked me to help him with some calculations related to a glass sphere he was creating (the original Tikkun). It was gratifying to be part of something that turned out to be so moving and beautiful.

JOCHEN WERMUTH: We are considering putting up some of his statues because they highlight the beauty of the Arctic ice which we are about to lose, with drastic consequences for humanity and life on Planet Earth. It is thus no longer a question if, it is only a question by how much and by when the sea-levels will rise. The United Nations estimates that 1.2 billion people will be displaced with 2m higher sea levels already. The climatic effects will be so rapid and violent that if we reach a 2 degrees Celsius warmer global climate, humanity is unlikely to be able to adapt and survive. The poorest 2 billion people who had nothing to do with causing this climate change will be hit first and hardest. We thus joined for moral as well as financial reasons.

We have art reminding us of our commitment to 100% renewable energy now! At the entrance to our home and we hope to be able to draw the interest of others to our topic through the impressive art of Henry.

Henry, how have David and Jochen influenced your work?

HENRY RICHARDSON: David has been a pioneer in the field of climate change and I am fortunate to have him as a friend and as a source of scientific information. I am excited by the idea of using my art to communicate rapid changes of our world caused by climate change, especially changes in glaciers that, although massive, are vulnerable, and vitally linked to human lives

I met Jochen at a meeting of investors working on systemic problems. We discussed his interest in the effects of climate change. His leadership in his own country greatly impressed me. The German commitment to alternative fuels sources, like solar energy, created a market for solar panels that prompted Chinese manufactures to ramp up production, and has lowered the cost of this energy source significantly. It would be great if the United States and other developed countries would follow suit.

When Jochen learned of my work of sculptures based on ice forms, he was very enthusiastic about finding art that reflects his passions. Art is a powerful source of emotion and communication, a creative energy to which I have dedicated my life. As another friend of my said, 'I take care of my body, I like to study, but art is really feeding my soul'. Well said!

David and Jochen, what do you think about intersections of art, science and activism? How can each benefit from the other?

DAVID LEA: I feel quite strongly about this issue and see the boundaries as quite fluid. Great art and great science both require an aesthetic to be effective, although this is less obvious for science. But in my work, presenting a great story requires a clear line, just like a great symphony. And a scientific result, if aesthetically pleasing, is all the more compelling.

JOCHEN WERMUTH:Art is the language of the gods and it can help bring people together and inspire them to move in the right direction. My wife and I are happy to swim against the stream, following our motto "only dead fish swim with the stream." The time has come to turn the heard of lemmings around to make sure we do not kill the basis of our existence. We need to share our success stories by investing in an impactful fashion, and visualizing what we are about to lose through the arts.

During the recent State of the Union address President Obama declared, "There is no greater threat than climate change". How you do you respond to this? How effective is the legislation that's currently in place or in the process of being put in place? What in your opinion needs to happen next?

DAVID LEA: I am a big supporter of the president's programs, and believe he has been as effective as anyone could be in his position, given the political, economic and diplomatic circumstances. He also has appointed effective and vigorous people to enact his policies, like Secretary John Kerry pursuit of effective climate diplomacy. The U.S. - China agreement on emission reductions announced last fall is a major breakthrough, with great potential for making a real impact. I would also single out Todd Stern, the President's Special Envoy on Climate Change, for his role behind the scenes in laying the groundwork for the agreement with China. I spent a year as a Jefferson Science Fellow at the U. S. State Department, where one of my roles was providing science advice to Mr. Stern. I developed a great respect for his effectiveness in a role that is very challenging, both nationally and internationally.

JOCHEN WERMUTH: $45 trillion of asset owners have subscribed to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment, $34 trillion have called for international governments to come up with a price for CO2 emissions at the UN climate change summit on 23 September 2014 in New York City. The USA has failed to lead on this front for over a decade now, and instead is behind the potential destruction of the planet. A "global cop" causing global damage is no good. Let us hope that America wakes up and takes a lead by imposing a price on carbon emissions domestically and signing up to global rules including a clear tax on emitting CO2.

2015 is the year in which we need to get the momentum going towards an international agreement on CO2 emission reductions. If governments fail us again, then businesses, families, institutional investors, individuals, artists will have to take the lead and make sure humanity has a chance to survive.