As Congress prepares to spend trillions on its next COVID-19 relief package, hundreds of children across the country are sending letters to their elected officials, urging them to keep another global crisis, climate change, front of mind. And alongside their requests are colorful illustrations, sketches, paintings, and collages.
The artwork is part of the Climate Art for Congress project, led by the New York–based Climate Museum. In April, the museum began compiling the pieces into a virtual exhibit as a way to foster civic and artistic engagement among young people during a period of closed galleries, postponed exhibits, and lots of spare time.
Together, the works tell the story of a warming planet. Many of them feature a crying Mother Earth—outfitted with hot compresses, bandages, dangling thermometers—often among rising tides and billowing smokestacks. But the artists also illustrate alternative scenes—of global cooperation, electric cars, thriving wildlife, and plastic-free oceans.
“We started thinking about ways that we could elevate the voices of young students who were cooped up in their homes and not necessarily able to vote,” says Saskia Randle, the museum’s arts marketing coordinator. So far, the Climate Museum has shipped out letters to Congress from more than 250 students, ages three to 18, and hopes to have kids from every state participate.
Many of the letter writers live in cities like Miami and New York City that are on the frontlines of the climate crisis and already experiencing the impacts of more extreme flooding, heat waves, and storms.
Alexandre, 10, grew up on Brickell Key, just off the southeastern coast of Florida. “I don’t know if this island will exist in the future,” he wrote to his representatives. “Please put climate change on your agenda.” To the left of his plea, Alexandre drew his home today—a green dot of land sitting at sea level in the Atlantic Ocean. On the right, under the label “tomorrow,” he drew a big blue question mark.
In 17-year-old Harry’s drawing, the Statue of Liberty drowns underneath a polluted sky.
Art, says Randle, is a pathway to entering the climate conversation. “Students do research on the science of climate and the importance of acting now. The hope is that it will spark in their mind some imagery and some desire to demand their right to a livable future,” she says. “On the other side, on the receiving end, that art gives the member of Congress a picture of the person behind the demand.”
For many, the letters have served as a first entry point into the political process. Maxine, an eighth grader in New York City, had never written to her representatives before. She applied one of her favorite art forms, watercolor, to depict two multicolored hands holding up the earth, sprouting a single green bud. “The earth takes care of us, so we need to take care of it back,” she says. “I wanted to show all different kinds of people coming together and trying to help our earth, and to have regrowth, like our earth being reborn—in pleasanter times.”
The letters range from straightforward requests—“sign the fossil fuel pledge now”—to poetic verse. “Forests are dying, people are lying, the effects horrifying, crisis crisis go away,” writes Alison, 15. “Don’t be a punk! Recycle your junk!” rhymes Ava, nine. And many of the correspondences speak to the urgency of fighting our era’s concurrent crises—the COVID-19 pandemic, global climate change, and environmental injustice.
Some, like Maham (age 16) from New York, point to the swift action taken in confronting COVID-19 as an example of what’s possible: “Time is of the essence with the climate, just as it was with the pandemic, and look at how we all sprung into action to fix the issue.”
Other participants see the pandemic as a lesson in what can be lost: “As a teenager, the quarantine has taken away many milestones like graduation and prom, but preserving the planet would enable us to have more memorable experiences,” writes Sahira (age 17), alongside a drawing of Earth wearing a face mask in front of a breaking heart.
Upcoming rounds of COVID-19 stimulus and relief packages will no doubt have significant implications for the country’s climate goals—like whether Congress chooses to bail out fossil fuel companies or invest in a more just, clean energy economy. So, everyone, let’s keep on writing and drawing and painting and doing whatever it takes to get our messages through.
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