Through The Lens webinar: Art can be effective in explaining abstract concepts like climate change

The webinar session featured (from left) ST art editor Lee Hup Kheng, senior executive artist Manuel Francisco and executive infographic journalist Billy Ker, and was moderated by ST's science and environment correspondent Audrey Tan. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Art is an effective way of communicating abstract concepts such as climate change to make it more palatable for the local audience.

This was what artists from The Straits Times had in mind when they were designing animations, cartoons and infographics to present concepts and data from climate science reports, said panellists at a webinar for a photography exhibition known as Through The Lens.

The webinar session, titled Climate Communication Through Art, featured ST art editor Lee Hup Kheng, senior executive artist Manuel Francisco and executive infographic journalist Billy Ker, and was moderated by ST's science and environment correspondent Audrey Tan.

To demonstrate how a technical concept can be succinctly condensed into art, Mr Francisco was given a brief to show how mangroves play an important role in protecting Singapore from sea level rise due to climate change.

Mangroves are thought to be a good nature-based solution because they have roots that stick out from above ground, which allows them to trap sediment from the tides and help countries like Singapore protect parts of their coastlines.

To communicate this concept, Mr Francisco drew a mangrove with some "human elements" including roots which looked like human hands hugging a little island to symbolise protection.

A device he usually uses is to identify the key words from each brief, which in this case are "protect" and "mangroves", that would help him to encapsulate the crux of the issue in an illustration.

But it is also important to come up with content that is relatable and appealing to readers, said Mr Lee.

For instance, the recent board game-themed graphic Game For Change? showcases 22 ways in which individuals can nudge the green transition along to tackle the ongoing climate crisis.

"So many things came into my mind - we were thinking about Snakes And Ladders, or Indiana Jones who overcame all the obstacles to obtain the final statue... Ultimately, it is about something that appeals to local readers, and so we settled on a combination of all of them, and, of course, Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider also came into play (for the final product)," he added.

To make the print graphic come to life, an animation, resembling that of a video game, was created by Mr Ker, a "huge movie buff" with a background in animation.

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Said Mr Lee: "You can see the nuances in the video, like the way the superhero lands... Billy has probably seen the Marvel movies or the Matrix, and has incorporated what he had seen in the animation. Although it may seem so tiny, these little details are something that our audience can relate to."

The final character chosen for the board game - Lara Croft - was also a departure from the traditional concepts of a "male hero", as a nod towards female inclusivity and representation, added Mr Lee.

Another way to make scientific concepts relevant to our local audience would be to try to use characters people can identify with, said Ms Tan.

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For example, in a four-part comic strip leading up to the COP26 negotiations last year in Glasgow, Scotland, the narrator was a black-naped oriole, an urban bird that many Singaporeans would have encountered in their day-to-day lives.

Another bird, the arctic skua, was also chosen as it is a migratory bird that appears in Singapore. It was used to communicate that climate-related disasters such as wildfires and melting ice caps can be seen all the way from the far north to Antarctica, she added.

Find out more about climate change and how it could affect you on the ST microsite here.