The Year in Music: Songs about Global Warming

The past 12 months have seen a slew of artists engaging with global warming, from Radiohead to Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. While environmental issues were sidelined in the mainstream media discourse, these musicians refused to look away

Feature by Andrew Gordon | 17 Nov 2016
  • Melting Arctic Ice Caps

“If I was going to write a protest song about climate change in 2015, it would be shit.” So said Thom Yorke this time last year, just days before the Paris Agreement conference. Evidently he had a change of heart.

While we’re perhaps still a while off from a top 40 hit about demanding proper carbon taxes, 2016 marked a groundswell in musicians writing about global warming, including Mr Radiohead himself. Yorke’s sung about natural catastrophe before – his solo debut was about rising tides – but A Moon Shaped Pool is the first Radiohead album to feature a genuine environmentalist anthem in the form of The Numbers. Formerly named Silent Spring, in reference to Rachel Carson’s landmark treatise on pesticides, the song insists that 'We are of the earth / To her we do return / The future is inside us / It's not somewhere else'.

This “somewhere else” likely refers to the notion of a magical post-Earth utopia that’s a persistent thorn in the side environmentalists; the idea, popularised by sci-fi fiction like Interstellar, that we might yet escape our dying planet and that technology will provide the solution to the problems that technology itself has caused. In a year that’s seen Elon Musk unveil plans to send millionaires to Mars, The Numbers is a pointed rebuff to technological optimism.

Nick Cave, too, knows better than to believe humanity can outsmart nature. Informed by the tragic loss of his son, Skeleton Tree finds the Prince of Darkness confronting immutable existential forces, of which volatile environmental systems are just one. 'There are powers at play more forceful than we,' he warns on Anthrocene. 'Come over here and sit down and say a short prayer, a prayer to the air'.

Like death, there’s no negotiating with laws of nature, Cave suggests; better to practice some humility or face the consequences. The title, a contraction of 'anthropocene', refers to our current era of domination over our surrounding world and fellow species, though Cave questions how much we’re really in control when 'all the things we love… we lose.'

Take the Great Barrier Reef, surely among the year’s biggest climate casualties, now a quarter smaller and razed by horrific bleaching that’s turned most of the remains a peaky skeletal white. It’s fitting, then, that it should be another Australian who dedicates a record to the plight of non-human species under global warming.

On his odd and brilliant Utopia Defeated, loop pedal maestro D.D Dumbo assumes the role of various unnamed creatures as he watches his kin decay, knowing he’s next. 'See my brother in the deep blue sea / surely someday it's gonna swallow me,' goes Brother. 'See my sister blister from the sun / Lord have mercy, what have I done?'

Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq also takes the animals’ side on her vicious Retribution, but where Dumbo’s Oliver Perry sees a one-way tragedy, Tagaq imagines a bloody reckoning mounted by the dispossessed. In monologues delivered between dizzying free jazz-via-industrial post-rock barrages, she draws a line between the exploitation of animals, indigenous peoples and the environment by state and corporate powers, her voice like a conduit for generations of combined rage.

Given the recent upheaval surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline – only the most recent instance of indigenous communities bearing the brunt of extraction by any means necessary – Tagaq’s uncontainable howl is an important expression of solidarity with disadvantaged communities disproportionately threatened by the fossil fuel agenda.

In the end though, climate change will come for us all: just hear Anhoni’s devastating 4 Degrees for a sneak peek. Over a glitchy fanfare that fuses Oneohtrix Point Never’s unnerving dystopianism with Hudson Mohawke’s cinematic bombast, the British songwriter describes a vision of the future that unfolds like a gory disaster film; dogs cry out from dehydration, dead fish bob along the ocean surface.

An especially disturbing twist is her ownership of it all: 'I wanna burn the sky,' she insists. Anhoni’s message is clear; with the deadline of zero emissions by mid-century looking less and less likely, negligence at this point is tantamount to complicity. She wants us to be scared and we should be.

As she so harrowingly illustrates, a four degree celsius rise in global temperature would be a doomsday scenario for the planet, but in truth the ‘safe’ two degree upper limit proposed in Paris last year is only a bare minimum for humanity’s survival and will still see further extinctions, render vast areas of our world unrecognisable and prompt more mass migrations.

But fear is also a kind of acceptance, a virtue more crucial now than ever. At a time when the incoming leader of the greatest world power chooses to pooh-pooh humanity’s biggest threat, these artists urge us not to look away.