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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fair
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Paradise Lost? exhibit on climate change opens at Olbrich
Terry Daulton and Dolly Ledin developed the Paradise Lost? art exhibit on climate change.
Credit:James T. Spartz

"I was terrified," says professor David Mladenoff while speaking at the opening for Paradise Lost? Artists on Climate Change in the Northwoods exhibit at Olbrich Gardens on Saturday. The forest and wildlife ecology scientist at UW-Madison says that it wasn't fear of paper birch blight in the Northwoods that had him scared; it was fear of meeting with a group of artists. The scary topic: climate change.

"What were we going to talk about for two whole days?!" Mladenoff recalls of his trepidation before an initial meeting of 20 artists, seven scientists, and six educators in Manitowish Waters back in May 2006. As one of two project directors, Mladenoff says that everything eventually worked out very well. It is an excellent example, he says, of what can happen when people of diverse backgrounds come together for a common purpose.

"The whole project started as a way to build relationships," says Dolly Ledin of the Center for Biology Education at the UW. Ledin, the other project director, worked closely with biologist Terry Daulton to develop the project.

Daulton, also an artist, conceived of the idea "years and years ago" and admits that, to her distinct pleasure, it has evolved into something far beyond her initial notions.

The display of art works by regional artists, including several pieces by Oregon High School and middle school students, was well received at the Madison opening of the exhibit over the weekend. The project, funded in part by the Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, has been on display at seven previous locations throughout Wisconsin. It will travel to Minneapolis and Milwaukee next. At each location, educators have worked with local high school and middle school students to discuss climate change and create art projects, some of which have been displayed at each stop.

But it's not just about the artwork, stresses Ledin. "It's an art and science exhibit. The two are highly integrated." Although what is on display is primarily artistic, including a living bog piece, the science of climate change has been impetus for the strong showing of creativity.

"What we know about climate change does not come from opinions or gut feelings," says Scott Spak, a doctoral student in Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences at the UW Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. "It comes from scientific analysis and testing." Spak is one of a handful of scientists who worked with artists on the project.

Both Spak and Mladenoff gave presentations and spoke of potential climate change outcomes as projections, not predictions. It's not that there won't be change, the scientists assured, it's just a matter of how much change and how and when it will occur; the change is already happening.

For example, if current levels of greenhouse gas emissions increase or even stay the same, residents of Wisconsin in 2100 can expect winters like those currently taking place in Iowa. Recent weather trends would continue: snowfall followed by 50-degree variations bringing rain and ice, followed by more snow, maybe.

Projections for summer are even more startling. What we now think of as typical Wisconsin summers, warm and humid, but with cooler nights, especially in the north, would all but cease to exist within the century. Madison would become like Little Rock on the meteorological front. Instead of average summer temps ranging from the high 60s to the mid-70s, Wisconsinites can expect many more days in the upper 80s, with less cool respite at night. Welcome to Arkansas.

But the Paradise Lost? project does not focus on the negative, and it is not meant to point fingers, says Ledin. "The whole message of the exhibit is a positive one," explains the energetic educator. "We wanted to create a positive message, to say that there's a lot we can do about it. We can all work together to solve this problem."

Several exhibitors at the opening reception were willing to tell everyone and anyone about ways to contribute to sustainable environmental change. MGE's renewable energy program Green Power and Focus on Energy were a couple of well-known programs. Other more grassroots plans included Mpowering Madison, aiming to reduce citywide carbon dioxide emissions by 100,000 tons before 2011; EnAct which tries to connect neighbors making sustainable lifestyle choices; and the Wisconsin DNR's Green and Healthy Schools program, among others. Information about educational curricula through the Wisconsin K-12 Energy Education Program, a Focus on Energy venture, was also on hand, as well as information about the Isthmus Green Day event to be held April 26 at the Monona Terrace in Madison.

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