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Climate change exhibit opens at DC’s Kennedy Center

(WASHINGTON) — A man submerged up to his chin in brown, murky floodwaters and a group of miners covered head to toe in black soot — these are a few of the images featured at a new climate-inspired photography exhibit at the Kennedy Center called Coal + Ice, which opened on March 15.

“I had young kids, and I was trying to think about the kind of world they’d be living in. I felt this increasing responsibility to try to address climate change,” said Gideon Mendel, a 63-year-old photographer based in London, whose work is featured in the exhibit.

The display, running through April 22, features a spread of photos and videos taken across the globe and documents the harmful effects of human activity on the planet. It showcases the work of more than 50 photographers and videographers from around the world and the varying ways climate change manifests.

Coal + Ice comes to Washington, D.C. as reliance on fossil fuels has taken center stage amid the war in Ukraine. As the global market faces more significant uncertainty due to the volatile geopolitical landscape and dragging impacts of COVID-19, climate change has been pushed to the back burner.

“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and president of the Asia Society Policy Institute that helped organize the exhibition.

“Dealing with geopolitics, dealing with the challenge to the inviability of national borders to be fundamentally violated in the invasion of Ukraine, and at the same time, wrestle with this pan-civilization challenge for climate change,” Rudd said.

Here in the United States, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked a debate on the sources of energy production at home. Many Republicans have called for an increase in oil and gas production to offset reliance on other nations, specifically Russia. In contrast, Democrats have pointed to this as evidence for a complete move away from non-renewable energies.

“It’s not looking good. It’s getting worse, and you know, at a time when the world needs actually a concerted global governance, to work together, it’s actually more fractured than it’s been for a long time,” said Mendel.

The exhibit allows viewers to walk around freely and move between “pods,” where individual collections provide an artistic exploration of the climate crisis. The content varies from scenes of coal mining operations worldwide to the rapidly melting glaciers of the Himalayas and photographs that chart their decline over the last few decades.

The 30,000 square-foot tent on the Kennedy Center’s “Reach Plaza” features a continuous background audio track that pairs with the visual displays to create an immersive experience for visitors.

Though the latest installation is on the doorstep of the government in Washington, D.C., there is concern about the exhibit’s impact.

“The danger with climate change groups, it just preached to the converted. You know, so you know, that’s, and you often have these closed circles. I mean, it’s really complex questions of how you use your work to bring about change,” said Mendel.

The exhibit makes its first appearance on the East Coast after initially debuting in Beijing in 2011, followed by showings in Yixian, Shanghai, Paris and San Francisco — the only other U.S. display. Smaller versions of Coal + Ice were also set up in Copenhagen and New Delhi. After the exhibition wraps, the organizers hope to take it to New York City, but have no official plans to do so.

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