Comic artist Céline Keller explains complex climate problems – such as the Energy Charter Treaty – … [+]
Climate experts are worried: the urgency of climate change isn’t getting through to the general public. Increasingly dire warnings and the growing ferocity of extreme weather events seem to elicit little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising: the scale of the climate crisis can seem too huge, and far beyond our control. In many ways, simply switching off is a rational response.
In the face of news fatigue and its byproduct of indifference, visual artists are turning to alternative methods to spread climate awareness where news stories have failed.
“I try to show that while this stuff is complicated and super important, it’s much easier to understand if you get the context,” says German comic book artist Céline Keller. “Explaining a topic is much easier if we tell stories. And the stories are there, if you look.”
As it turns out, graphic novels and comics are becoming an important tool in the climate communicator’s arsenal. From the sci-fi of Dark Horse comics’ Shifting Earth to Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed, an all-in-one crash-course on the subject, there’s something for everyone.
Keller has just released Dawn of the ECT, a self-published comic that deals with the fiendishly complex Energy Charter Treaty. In the West it might seem unconventional to see such weighty topics dealt with in a comic format. But in Keller’s view, the more complex the problem, the more valuable the graphic artform becomes; narrative images, she thinks, have a way of cutting through that news headlines and social media no longer can.
“In these times, with one scandal chasing the next, it’s important to arrange stuff in relation to its history. I think comics are great for that,” she tells me. “Getting activists and communities up to speed on a topic with a comic instead of a pile of articles can help.”
In Dawn of the ECT, Keller narrates the story of an international agreement so obscure that most mass media outlets have avoided discussing it. Yet the ECT is important: it enables companies such as oil firms to sue countries for billions of dollars in compensation in secret tribunals, often in response to government attempts to pass climate legislation—like, for example, when Italy tried to ban offshore drilling near its coastline.
Legal advocacy groups such as ClientEarth have called for the EU to abandon the ECT, saying it jeopardises Europe’s climate goals. Whistleblower and climate researcher Yamina Saheb, who initially worked at the body overseeing the ECT, has described it as an “ecocide treaty.”
In Keller’s version of the story of the ECT, the heroine, a personification of the European Green Deal, exclaims “either we kill this treaty, or the treaty will kill us,” as a zombified monstrosity representing the energy firms looms overhead. Corporate lawyers in the guise of Mafia-esque hoodlums explain how, by using a mechanism called an investor state dispute settlement, they intend to exert a chilling effect on climate action by challenging any decision that affects an investment by the energy sector.
The complexity of the subject-matter didn’t discourage Keller from illustrating it. In fact, it rather appealed to her.
Keller’s Discourses of Climate Delay, released in 2021.
“It was super stressful but exciting,” she says. “I love deep-diving into something and trying to figure out how to make it work as a story.” Dawn of the ECT, Keller says, is “a collage of research and bits of articles I put together in a way that hopefully make up a story that draws you in.”
It’s not the first time Keller has dealt with a complex climate topic: in 2021 she released Discourses of Climate Delay, a comic based on an influential academic paper of the same name. That research looked at a shifting of the fossil fuel industry’s climate strategy, from simply denying the existence of climate change, to introducing delaying tactics intended to justify climate inaction. The comic version offers a visually striking breakdown of the key takeaways from the report, telling the story of how the oil industry and complicit politicians do everything in their power to prevent meaningful change.
Though largely ignored by the mass media, Discourses of Climate Delay made waves among numerous academics and activists, with university and high school climate educators employing the comic to help explain why climate inaction persists.
A freelance artist and animator, Keller, 45, is self-taught. “I did apply to art school, but none wanted me,” she says. She dabbled in theology for a time, but “realized that’s not where a queer person should be.” She found associating pictures with information to be a useful memory aid, and a way to organize her ideas. Then, a story about sea level rise threatening Miami threw a switch, and she got involved with climate activist group Extinction Rebellion.
“A couple years ago I still thought tech billionaires and their fearmongering about the Singularity were the biggest threat. I didn’t know much about climate change,” she recalls. She reveals she has a comic still in the works (“already over 60 pages long”) about Elon Musk, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and “social Darwinism … it turns out, even if the topic changes, it’s still the same billionaires getting on my nerves.”
As for her influences, Keller namechecks Jessica Abel, author of Out on the Wire, a graphic novel about radio and podcasting, and Swedish illustrator Liv Strömquist. She’s also greatly influenced by U.S. author Mary Annaïse Heglar and the investigative journalist Amy Westervelt, who has pioneered the narrative podcast in the climate space, taking the format of non-fiction true crime and applying it to the fossil fuel industry.
Much like podcasts, Keller believes, comics can help non-specialist audiences access otherwise challenging topics in a way that seems less like hard work. But she’s also found that academics have responded positively to having their work reflected back at them in a visual medium.
“I don’t write for a special audience,” she says. “But apart from activists and curious people, I think comics might be a good way for academics to give an overview of their field, or communicate it with other academics, who might be inclined to read something other than a paper in their free time. It could make interdisciplinary research fun.”
Nevertheless, Keller understands her core mission as something more practical.
“I hope to inspire action,” she says, “and understanding the problem is the first and most important step for action. I wish more creative people would start thinking about how to use accessible ways to spread the info people need in this fight for climate justice and human rights.
“We have to hang in there, because none of the fights will be short or easy.”