The term Tragic Triumph was brought up by climatologist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber after COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009: science diagnosed human-induced global warming and the urgency to act, but was ignored or disbelieved by politics; no consequential decisions were made. Tragedy is a poetic form that evolved in Greek theatre. Tragedies stage human sufferings. The audience feels a certain pleasure in watching the tragedy evolving, but also has the possibility of catharsis leading to fundamental change and action. If this poetic pattern is transferred to reality, there is however a striking contrast. The tragedy results from the fact that catharsis is not taking place. Climate change scientists find themselves playing the role of Cassandra, who knew the devastating future nobody believed in. Year after year climate science presents the narrative of earthly and human future sufferings as a tragic reality. Today, some years after COP 15, the Tragic Triumph has an additional meaning: science found out about climate change when it was almost too late to act. Seven years later, COP 22 held in Paris in 2016 showed more promise but even today when most decision-makers believe what climate science report, consequential actions remain weak. Reality is like a viscous gel, flowing in one direction; an abrupt detour seems impossible, fundamental changes are just not ‘feasible.’ Does the audience of this play feel any pleasure? In the traditional setting of drama, catharsis is caused through fear and pity, by means of art. As a consequence there can be a change in emotion (consciousness, perception) that creates renewal – but maybe on an individual level only.

Defined by Birgit Schneider

Image: Rising Sea Level XV: San Michele Cemetery, Venice, Italy, 2007, archival ink jet print. Sayler / Morris for The Canary Project.