Music in the Era of Climate Change

Music, being a universal language, has been at the center of self-expression since the beginning of time.

Artists often draw inspiration from the contemporary world, and with the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, what is a more relevant and pressing issue than global warming?  

Being a universal struggle that we can all relate to, the environmental movement has brought people from all corners of the world together. 

From anger and frustration to sadness and love, artists reflect on their plethora of emotions regarding the climate crisis, with their music serving as a catalyst for change.

What Can Music Do During Climate Change?

The severity of the climate crisis has soaked its way into every corner and fabric of our existence – it is inescapable. Since Neil Young implored us to “look at Mother Nature on the Run” in the 70s and more recently ANOHNI howled “I wanna see the animals die in the trees” in 2016, the warnings have only grown more severe. 

With just the live music industry releasing approximately 405,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases each year, can a business built on carbon emissions really benefit the climate movement?

The 1970s was a decade of rising awareness. With the founding of GreenPeace and the beginning of the Earth Day Movement, musicians such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young began writing songs inspired by the climate crisis. Following in the footsteps of the Vancouver benefit show that first launched GreenPeace, many more concerts were organized for the cause in the late 70s by impassioned bands like Grateful Dead. 

The 80s, however, focused on putting these ideas into action beyond just writing songs and arranging benefit shows. Remember when CDs  used to come in longboxes that were immediately thrown away? Thanks to the efforts of some famous artists such as Price, Sting and R.E.M, labels were pressured into using alternative packaging for them, and they eventually phased out. 

Since then, well-known names in the industry such as U2 and Phish have played their part in the environmental movement, by doing everything they can to keep their tours green. From using recycled material for merch to remaining carbon neutral. U2 even went as far as dressing up in radiation suits and wading into the freezing Irish Sea in 1992 as a way to protest the opening of a nuclear reactor, echoing the event that had started Greenpeace two decades earlier.

Today’s Generation

Taking action did not stop in the 90s. Coldplay, Tame Impala, the 1975 and Billie Eilish are just a few big names that are propelling change in the music industry. 

Coldplay’s website has its own sustainability page which lays out a 12-point action plan to cut down their carbon footprint. After pausing the tour for their last album due to environmental concerns, lead singer Chris Martin has announced that the band is powering their next tour with “the world’s first rechargeable show battery”. The fans will stand on “kinetic flooring” to generate electricity as they jump to the music. They also aim to plant a tree for every ticket sold.

The 1975 have a similar goal for their tours. They have also collaborated with Greta Thunberg on their 2019 track “The 1975”, imploring that “it is time to rebel” as “there are no grey areas when it comes to survival”.

Billie Eilish is another artist who supports the young activist. Thunberg was an evident influence on the music video for her song, “All the Good Girls Go to Hell”. It shows Billie, a beautiful creature with wings, falling down from the sky and getting covered in oil, which slows her down and inhibits her abilities. Meanwhile, the world burns around her, symbolizing forest fires caused by global warming.

Climate Change in the Era of Music

Clearly, music has played an important role in influencing the development of the environmental movement. 

But how has the climate crisis influenced the development of music?

Delving into the specifics, I have analysed a few songs to highlight the impact of the climate crisis on the songwriting processes of various artists. 

#1 Earth Song – Michael Jackson 

You must be familiar with Michael Jackson’s legendary “Earth Song” recorded for his 1995 album “HIStory”:

“And for me, this is Earth’s Song, because I think nature is trying so hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the Earth. And with the ecological unbalance going on, and a lot of the problems in the environment, I think earth feels the pain, and she has wounds, and it’s about some of the joys of the planet as well… But this is my chance to pretty much let people hear the voice of the planet”.

Michael Jackson

The track is a wake-up call for humankind to recognize the pain and damage they have caused. 

The award-winning music video presents images of pollution, animal cruelty, poverty and war. It shows a heart-rending scene of Michael Jackson holding onto tree branches in an attempt to brave the destruction caused by humanity.

 #2 Truth to Power – OneRepublic

This song was released in 2017 for the documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which followed the former United States Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about global warming. The song speaks to the theme of this movie that the ‘truth’ leads to ‘power’ when it comes to standing up and helping to create change. 

It was written from a unique perspective of Mother Earth, talking to her inhabitants. The music video shows footage that vividly encapsulates the dire consequences of the climate crisis.

The emphasized lyric of the song is “If you could see me the way I see you, if you could feel me the way I feel you. You’d be a believer”. It urges the listener to be a part of the solution and ignites a passion to demand change. 

Speaking truth to power is an expression used for courageously confronting authority and calling them out on their injustices. 

#3 Despite Repeated Warnings – Paul Mccartney  

The legendary former Beatles band member released a song called “Despite Repeated Warnings”, a hit track from his 2018 album “Egypt Station”. McCartney had read a paper about climate change and a particular line in the article stood out to him:

“Despite repeated warnings, they’re not listening.” 

… I’ll do a kind of song where I used symbolism and so the person will be symbolic of certain politicians and people who argue that climate change is a hoax, and we know a few… 

Paul McCartney

He drew inspiration from the 1997 film “Titanic” to illustrate a sea captain steering his boat towards an iceberg despite several warnings. Instead, as the lyrics say, “he laughs in our faces, says we are mistaken”.

The song ends on a hopeful note, emphasizing that “it’s the will of the people” that can save the day. 

Taking a look at the music produced over the past few decades and its power to inspire movements, it is evident that neither the music industry nor the awareness surrounding climate change today would be the same without each other.

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