When I was a child in the 1980s, the threat of nuclear war pervaded the culture. It was there in movies, in novels, even in pop songs: I still feel a little pre-adolescent shiver when I hear "99 Red Balloons". The mushroom cloud haunted every classroom. By comparison, the danger of a disrupted climate – which is not hypothetical; it has already begun – has been only nudged by our artists. There have been a few terrific novels, like JG Ballard's eco-haunted oeuvre, or Will Self's The Book of Dave, or Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But they are the exceptions. The vision of a world that is six degrees warmer – a gap as big as that between us and the last ice age – has so far been described only by scientists.
Yet human beings need to process information twice; once as fact, and then as imaginary narratives that tease out its implications. It's why we dream, and why we compulsively tell each other stories.
The swelling evidence of man-made global warming is now finally compelling artists into creation. The terrific new exhibition at the Royal Academy "Earth: Art of a Changing World" brings together dozens of the greatest visual artists in the world to respond to the climate crisis – and what it reveals about us.
The theme that pervades the exhibition is the slow realisation that our existence here is arbitrary and contingent. Life on this rock in space developed by fluke, and it can be ended by a series of man-made flukes – like releasing massive amounts of a colourless, odourless warming gas into the atmosphere.
The first exhibit is called Semiconductor. The artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt have used the raw visual data from one of Nasa's space observatories to track the solar winds that wash across the universe. As you stare at them – and the utterly alien sounds of space are blasted all around you – it's hard to escape a sudden sense of being an object in a void, with nowhere else to go if we render this rock uninhabitable. Its images and soundscape dissolve – here, at your first step – our human-centred view of the universe. We think we're so important, so central to existence, that we can't be destroyed. But here we are; nothing but a speck in a celestial storm that would barely register our self-annihilation.
Nature Paintings by Keith Tyson underlines this point. Tyson had an accident in his studio where chemicals mixed with pigment, and they independently formed gorgeously painterly patterns. Like our world, it looks like it has so much meaning, and is the product of so much planning – but it is an accident. Nothing more. It could be undone in a moment.
In the corner of one part of the gallery there sits a small steel orb that will explode in precisely a hundred years from now. It was designed by Kris Martin, and it is called 100 Years. It stares at you, silently. Where will it be when the explosion comes? Will this part of London be underwater? Will it be forgotten in some dusty archive and end up destroying all the artwork around it? Will everyone ignore the problem it poses, until the detonation comes?
Some of the artists at the Royal Academy have taken a more literal look at the crisis. Antti Laitinen, in It's My Island I, films himself trying to build an island out of rocks in the open ocean, and we watch it being swallowed by the sea – a fate that awaits many nations. Lucy and Jorge Orta have built a makeshift refugee camp Antarctic Village, stitched from the flags of all the nations that would be crippled by runaway warming.
Shiro Takatani shows an ice core that has been drilled out from the depths of the Arctic, revealing the carbon dioxide levels at every point in history. There is the snow that fell during the Battle of Hastings; there is the snow that fell during the American Civil War; and there we are, changing the fossil record with a massive blast of warming gases.
The exhibition probes some of our darker impulses towards the ecosystem. With Doomed, Tracey Moffatt splices together shots of the end of the world from a great ream of old movies – and it is entrancing. Everybody stops and stares, open-mouthed, smiling. Is there some strange vandalistic impulse in human beings that makes us almost will the end? If we're honest, wasn't the most beautiful sight of the year Sydney shrouded in apocalyptic red dust, blown in from the dried-out centre of the country?
The only exhibit that doesn't work – that plays to the dumbest sliver of environmentalism – is Tracey Emin's I Loved You like the Sky. It is a (bad) drawing of several cute animals, with scrawled romanticised bursts of guff: "Your heart is like the wind," she announces, meaninglessly. You can't slop together any old sub-Michael Jackson ramblings and call it a green statement. Even if your heart was like the wind, what would it have to do with the climate crisis?
The exhibit that slapped me hardest was The Russian Ending by Tacita Dean. It is a series of stills from old industrial accidents; trashed ships and exploding mines and mangled men in graves. We are all, it hints, caught up in a giant industrial accident now. Just as the owners of these mines and ships didn't put in basic safety measures, we aren't putting in basic safety measures to regulate the vast belching, warming gases that are rupturing the climate. These pictures are becoming our story.
Dean's title comes from the fact that movies made for international distribution often shoot an extra "Hollywood ending" – a happy resolution for an American market that doesn't want to leave the cinema downcast. But they also used to shoot a "Russian ending" – a tragic and bleak conclusion to the story, for Russians who expected no less. Dean leaves us with a strange irony: American vandalism of a climate deal may leave us all with a Russian ending.
These visual artists are not alone. The Road, for example, is a parable about what would happen to humanity if we are stripped of a stable ecosystem. In the novel and in the new film version, something – we are not told what – causes nature to implode. Nothing grows; a thin layer of ash lies across the world. Almost everything dies. A man and his son stagger across this landscape, finding nothing, being nothing.
Utter collapse certainly won't happen overnight, as it does in The Road. But by accelerating the process so dramatically, McCarthy shows us what we are risking in the space of just a few lifetimes. Joseph Conrad said in 1896: "Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings." If you take away the web of life around us, we are reduced almost immediately to dying scavengers, feeding off rubbish, and each other.
We are in the process of dramatically destabilising the stable ecosystem that stands between us and The Road. To comprehend the gamble we are taking, and why we are responding so sluggishly, we need scientists first, for sure. But following closely behind, we need artists. Now, at last, they are coming in on the rising tide.Reuse content