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The ice men

Tamsin WalkerDecember 9, 2015

"I think interdependence has to be at the top of the list, because people are protecting their own interests."

Frankreich Cop21 Klimagipfel in Paris - Faces of Climate Change - Eliasson & Rosing
Image: DW/T. Walker & R. Krause

Time was, waiting for ice to turn to water in Greenland was a thankless task. Those days are long gone. During the summer months, it now melts at a rate of 10,000 tons a second. A second!

Somehow – incredibly - that mind-boggling figure has not made it into mainstream conversation on global warming, so in a bid to introduce it into minds of the masses, artist Olafur Eliasson and geology professor Minik Thorleif Rosing came up with an unlikely idea.

For their Ice Watch Paris, they fished twelve giant lumps of free floating ice from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord outside Greenland's capital Nuuk and brought them to Paris – first by ship to Denmark and then on temperature-controlled trucks to their final destination at the Place de Pantheon.

A child looks at the ice
The closest thing Paris has seen to ice so far this DecemberImage: DW/T.Walker

The dramatic, operatic setting well befits their tragic fate. In full view of an ever-changing yet wrapped public, these twelve pristine natural beauties succumb to the inevitability of their demise in an environment that can't support their survival. At the foot of the Pantheon, itself a place of burial, they turn into puddles. The message is as simple as it is powerful. It screams and it whispers: the ice caps of Greenland are melting. Fast.

It is an effective cry for help in a world where help is much needed. But can art step into the breach? Icelandic-Danish Eliasson believes it can, not only by removing statistical abstraction, but by making people aware of the space and the opportunities that surround them.

Giant ice blocks in central Paris. The Eiffel Tower in the distance
A stark reminder of the reality facing not just Greenland, but by extension, the entire planetImage: DW/T.Walker

"Art and culture have a way of speaking to people that goes beyond what politicians and the media does," he said, pointing at the stonehenge-like arrangement of what were once parts of Nordic icebergs. "What we are celebrating, is of course a project that addresses climate, but this is also about public space, civic society and how we can unify in culture to do more than just make a statement."

With the window for preventing climate devastation closing, the time for isolated statements has passed. And Rosing says works like Ice Watch Paris can help mobilize determination to take things to the next level.

Olafur Eliasson
The artist himselfImage: DW/T.Walker

"Both art and science try to make us understand our role in the world, but art has a special quality in that it can move people to want to do something," the scientist said. "Science can then help you get there." And that, he adds, is what the Paris climate talks are all about. Getting somewhere. "People don't realise their own interests are the common interest. So we must collectively decide where we want to go with this planet and realise that we have to steward it."

Eliasson too, wants to see COP21 deliver what he calls "actual consensus" on a clear trajectory as opposed to populist media talk." It is clear to everyone that this is a global issue, but it runs out that global is defined in very different ways."

Rosing is on much the same page, but says it is also important to see how far we have come on climate change recognition.

Blocks of ice in front of the Pantheon in Paris
In the absence of minus temperatures, every second renders them that bit smallerImage: picture alliance/Zuma Press/Li Genxing

"What is already a success is that we are no longer asking whether there is a problem, but talking about its source. So we should not see it as a failure if there is no legally binding agreement, because there is now consensus that something needs to be done."

By the time the leaders in Paris have decided whether or not to fully commit to saving our planet, the ice at Place de Pantheon will be no more.