We are now in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, UK. You have heard how important it is: the most consequential climate summit in a generation; the meeting on which the future of the planet rests. Also, it is a massive gathering, and every gathering needs a soundtrack. So we have put one together.
Our rules for inclusion are loose. If it is a good tune and it mentions climate change or something related, then it might make the cut, but we are also allowing anything that just makes you think about the unprecedented environmental crisis we are living in, even if it was recorded in a bygone age.
By this reasoning, we are including To Live & Die in L.A. by 2Pac, even though it is very much a life in the city story, not a climate crisis one. But with the temperature in parts of Los Angeles exceeding 49°C in September 2020 and south-western North America gripped by a water shortage so severe it has been called a megadrought, we thought the track should get onto our playlist.
We are also including Five Years by David Bowie, which, again, though not about climate change, does emphasise the speed of action required if we are going to prevent more than 1.5°C of warming. (Smallprint: inclusion of a song doesn’t imply endorsement of its message. In the case of the climate crisis, we don’t have five years until the end of the world; on the other hand, it may well be the end of the world as we know it.)
We start our playlist with a blues classic from Bessie Smith, recorded in 1927. Back then, carbon dioxide was present in the atmosphere at 305 parts per million, compared with 280 ppm in pre-industrial times and a monstrous 413 ppm today. But some people believe that Smith’s song, Backwater Blues, refers to the massive Mississippi flood of 1927, so we think it counts as the first climate change song.
Here are a few more of our choices:
Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting. One interpretation of this a classic is as an early examination of the pros and cons of geoengineering as a way of tackling climate change.
Mos Def’s New World Water: it is more than 20 years old, but is prescient in its consideration of water shortages and pollution.
Thom Yorke needs a special mention as he has been interested and moved by environmental issues for a good few years now. We have included one of his solo tracks as well as a Radiohead classic.
Like Yorke, popstar Billie Eilish has repeatedly called on world leaders to take action on climate change. Her unsettling song All the Good Girls Go to Hell was inspired by the deadly wildfires that have ravaged Eilish’s home state of California in recent years.
Big Yellow Taxi, written by Joni Mitchell amid the growing ecological angst of the 1970s, is one of the most famous environmental protest songs of all time. Though it primarily focuses on chemical pollution and biodiversity loss, its message that “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” couldn’t be more relevant today.
If synthpop is more your thing, try Magdalena Bay’s Venice: while it feels like a hazy, escapist track on the surface of things, it conjures up visions of sweltering heat and a world on the brink of apocalypse. Likewise, Sylvan Esso’s PARAD(w/m)E may seem upbeat, but it paints a vivid picture of dried-up oceans and the destruction of our natural world. “There’s nothing left to ruin”, it warns – let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Childish Gambino’s Feels Like Summer has a lovely 70s groove that belies the subject of the song: rising temperatures brought on by anthropogenic climate change.
ANOHNI’s 4 Degrees was written in solidarity with COP21, the 2015 climate conference that brought about the Paris Agreement, and sees the artist reckoning with her own complicity in the climate crisis. On the eve of the next pivotal UN climate summit, the song is a stark reminder of how devastating such seemingly small rises in temperature actually are.
We were tempted to end our playlist with REM’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), but we don’t want to play into doomerism. So we will give the last word to Greta Thunberg’s collaboration with the 1975:
“We can no longer save the world by playing by the rules
Because the rules have to be changed
Everything needs to change, and it has to start today
So, everyone out there, it is now time for civil disobedience
It is time to rebel”
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