Self-described “peer-reviewed rapper” Baba Brinkman has a new show — Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, playing at the SoHo Playhouse in New York City.
“It’s a little bit of comedy, a lot of music and maybe a little bit of TED talk sprinkled in,” said Brinkman. The one-man musical offers a funny, thoughtful look at the science, economics and politics of climate change — in verse and with a backbeat. The show received praise from critics at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and delegates at the Paris Climate Conference, where he performed in December.
A white Canadian in his late 30s, Brinkman doesn’t fit the bill for a touring rap artist, but neither does his subject matter. Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is the latest installment in a canon of work that includes rap guides to religion, evolution and human nature — topics where public perceptions have strayed from empirical understanding.
“I like subjects where there is a scientific consensus and a public misconception about that fact,” said Brinkman. With climate change, “virtually all scientists agree. (A) it’s happening, (B) it’s dangerous and (C) it’s definitely human-made. And the public is confused about all three of those to varying degrees.”
Rap Guide to Climate Chaos offers head-bopping beats and verbal acrobatics, but its greatest achievement is managing to assimilate decades of research, policy, and public debate into short, catchy rhymes. Here’s Brinkman on the issues:
Brinkman doesn’t downplay the scale of the problem. He believes fussing over light bulbs and shopping bags is mostly pointless and frequently counterproductive. Brinkman says the best way to tackle climate change is to put a price on carbon. His measured approach has won converts from conservatives who saw the show.
“I had a high school show that I did a couple of months ago, and the teacher that organized it forwarded me a note from one of the students,” said Brinkman. “[The student] said, ‘As a right-wing person, I don’t agree with a lot of Baba’s politics… but he did make me feel like if I became president, I would want to impose a carbon tax.”
“I just converted a potential Republican voter to carbon taxes,” mused Brinkman. “That’s it. I’m done. That’s all I needed.”
Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is the latest in a growing genre of performance art. In 2011, Greenland recreated the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference on London’s West End. In 2012, Jake Gyllenhaal starred as a climate-obsessed professor in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, a play in which rising waters swept away parts of the set. The following year, Our Clement World premiered off-Broadway. Its author, Cynthia Hopkins, said she was inspired to write the show after hearing development economist Jeffrey Sachs speak to the role of artists in communicating the risks of climate change.
Brinkman is heeding the same call, trying to untangle the complexities of climate science for the uninitiated. He believes science is rich with facts that, while terrifying in their implications, are devoid of emotional substance. A climate model may forecast a global rise in temperature, but it cannot tell a story about the human suffering. Artists, Brinkman says, can bring color and meaning to a difficult subject.
“I think people associate science with facts, and facts on their own don’t really have any retention in our brains,” said Brinkman, “But if you can connect somebody with an emotional experience — if it’s something that impacts them directly, if they care about it, if they have a visceral basis for their memory — then it sticks.”
Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy, and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.