As global temperatures have climbed, so have mentions of climate change in popular songs. Here are 10 that led the way.
By Kendra Pierre-Louis
At its best, music can act as a kind of auditory restorative, lifting us up when we’re down. It can help hold us together, both as individuals and collectively, when a trauma sends ripples across society.
Twenty-five years ago, after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, “Lightning Crashes” by the rock band Live seemed to put a voice to the nation’s pain. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the music of bounce artist 5th Ward Webbie crystallized the feeling, common among many New Orleanians, that their government had abandoned them.
Yet in recent decades, even as climate change caused temperatures to soar and triggered lethal hurricanes, catastrophic fires and cataclysmic floods across the United States and its territories, a keen ear could hear the theme of global warming starting to swell, from country to rap, rock to pop.
A look at lyrics from all artists who have appeared on any of Billboard’s domestic charts in the past two decades revealed at least 192 references to climate change. And like climate change, those references are accelerating. Two-thirds came in the last decade, which was also the hottest decade on record, with 26 of the songs released last year.
Take a look at, and listen to, some of the highlights, beginning in 1999 when a California power-pop band called Smash Mouth warned us that the ice was getting pretty thin.
‘ALL STAR’ (1999)
The message from the Smash Mouth guitarist and songwriter Greg Camp, which came in a single verse atop the song’s infectious beat and tucked in between lyrics mainly focused on self-affirmation and anti-bullying, has shown up on climate protest signs and internet memes.
It’s a cool place and they say it gets colder / You’re bundled up now, wait till you get older / But the meteor men beg to differ / Judging by the hole in the satellite picture / The ice we skate is getting pretty thin / The water’s getting warm so you might as well swim / My world’s on fire, how about yours? / That’s the way I like it and I never get bored
This year we asked people on Twitter for their favorite songs by popular artists that are related to climate change. Several songs — Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning,” Sarah McLachlan’s “World on Fire” and Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” — came up that aren’t about climate change. Smash Mouth’s “All Star” was mentioned repeatedly and has the distinction of actually being about climate change. (The others are about the forced removal of Australian Aboriginal people, the 9/11 attacks and hooking up at the club.)
“I’m no scientist, I’m just the guy that writes songs and plays guitar,” Smash Mouth’s Mr. Camp said. He said he felt that musicians and other artists that have a podium needed to at least mention climate change “to try and get people to be a part of the problem-solving as opposed to part of the problem.”
“All Star” isn’t the first time the band tackled climate change: “Walkin’ on the Sun,” released two years earlier, also touched on the subject. But “All Star” endures in part because the band authorized its use “to every single thing,” Mr. Camp said. Its inclusion in “Shrek,” for example, brings the song and its ideas to new generations.
And Mr. Camp and his bandmates broached climate change at a time when most popular musicians were not doing so. A search of Billboard charts at the time of “All Star’s” release in 1999 turned up only two other popular artists who referenced the issue in their music. The band Testament released “Fall of Sipledome” and the rapper Mos Def came out with “New World Water.”
‘NEW WORLD WATER’ (1999)
The song was released on the rapper’s debut album, “Black on Both Sides.” The artist, who now goes by Yasiin Bey, takes the listener through the historical, social and environmental impacts of water scarcity, foreshadowing that access to clean water was going to be a growing issue, years before the Flint water crisis.
The song also acknowledges the impact of climate change on water access. Last year, in an interview with Vibe, the rapper Lupe Fiasco, who featured climate change in his 2018 song “Down,” cited “New World Water” as a significant influence. “It just kind of got bookmarked in my mind,” he said. “Water is an issue, water’s a problem, water’s a right.”
New world water make the tide rise high / Come inland and make your house go “bye” / Fools done upset the Old Man River
This list is based on an analysis of thousands of song lyrics, provided by the lyric hub Genius, that looked for climate change references between 1999 and 2019, the last year for which full data is available. It focused on songs that were primarily in English and released in the United States by popular artists.
As a measure of popularity, any artist who ever appeared on any of Billboard’s domestic charts was included. In total we found 192 references to climate change, which is likely a minimum. (Repeat references on the same album were not counted.) Just under half of those references, or 87 songs, came in the five-year period between 2015 and 2019. In comparison, the previous decade, 1999 to 2009, included 61 songs.
The increase in musical references is in line with trends that Anthony Leiserowitz, a human geographer and the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, has documented more broadly. Since 2008, he has been conducting regular surveys of people’s attitudes toward climate change across the United States. “In the past five years there’s really been an upsurge in public engagement with the issue,” he said.
‘I NEED TO WAKE UP’ (2006)
Melissa Etheridge won a 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song for “I Need to Wake Up,” the theme for the climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” featuring former Vice President Al Gore. The song was released in 2006, the same year that Ms. Etheridge went on tour across the United States and Canada in a biodiesel bus. Its lyrics approached the subject obliquely, without explicit reference to climate change or its impacts.
’Cause I need to move / I need to wake up / I need to change / I need to shake up / I need to speak out / Something’s got to break up / I’ve been asleep / And I need to wake up / Now
‘AND IT RAINED ALL NIGHT’ (2006)
Thom Yorke used a similar thematic approach. Mr. Yorke, who, like Ms. Etheridge, is an environmentalist, wrote climate-themed songs both as a singer-songwriter for the band Radiohead (including “Idioteque” from 2000) and on his 2006 solo album “The Eraser.” Mr. Yorke tackled climate change at least twice on the album with the songs “Cymbal Rush,” and “And It Rained All Night,” which addresses the fear of cataclysmic flooding.
And it rained all night and washed the filth away / Down New York air conditioned drains / The click click clack of the heavy black trains / A million engines in neutral/ The tick tock tick of a ticking time bomb / Fifty feet of concrete underground / One little leak becomes a lake
PITBULL featuring SENSATO
‘GLOBAL WARMING’ (2012)
While he’s become known for body-shaking chart-topping party songs, the dance-friendly rapper Pitbull frequently drops climate messaging into his tracks. His 2012 album was named “Global Warming.” ¡Dale!
Up in this a new million / You heard me, Sensato / It’s Mr. Worldwide / Y El mundo es el patio / Let my dreams y’all dormant / Category Sixes are storming / Take this as a, take this a warning / Welcome to, welcome to global warming
“My mother was the one that taught me about global warming and climate change and the greenhouse effect,” said Pitbull, whose given name is Armando Christian Pérez.
Pitbull, who served as a United Nations ambassador for its Clean Water Here initiative in 2018, not only named his 2012 album “Global Warming,” he called his 2017 album “Climate Change.”
“The reason that it’s something so important to me and I’ve named albums behind it and I put it in records is because if we don’t have a world, we don’t have anything” he said.
Since his mother first taught him about climate change in the early 1990s, Mr. Pérez said he read up on the topic and watched rigorously researched documentary films to deepen his understanding. Dr. Leiserowitz said that films,even fictional ones, can have a strong influence on people’s views.
Dr. Leiserowitz once researched the effect that watching the 2004 disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow” had on viewers. The film takes broad liberties with both science and reality, yet Dr. Leiserowitz found that film watchers became more engaged with the subject and learned “some important new ideas about climate science and climate change.”
Pitbull also weaves climate change themes into unexpected places.
“I felt if I made a record about global warming nobody was going to jam through it,” he said. “But if I make albums named global warming, climate change, globalization, people will start to connect the dots as I sprinkle it in records that they may dance to.”
He points to the fact that in Miami, his hometown, you can already see that the seas are rising as his impetus for trying to increase awareness. And he hopes that when we emerge from the coronavirus disaster, which he’s already chronicled in his recent single “I Believe That We Will Win,” we’ll emerge with an awareness of the need to deal with planet-scale issues as a global community.
‘ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS’ (2015)
The dance hall is not the only surprising place for climate change to pop up. Macy Gray slipped climate change messaging into her socially conscious Christmas song that also tackled incarceration, gun control and access to health care.
All I want for Christmas is to have a chance / So please take care of the environment / Take Mr. Gore more seriously / And do what you can to stop global warming
‘4 DEGREES’ (2016)
Over an ominous drumbeat, Anohni sings that she wants to see the world boil. As she explained to Pitchfork in 2015, it’s because “I have grown tired of grieving for humanity.” She added, “I also thought I was not being entirely honest in pretending that I am not part of the problem.”
The song’s title comes from research that indicates if humans continue to burn fossil fuels without restraint, the planet’s temperatures will increase by roughly 4 degrees Celsius, or 7 degrees Fahrenheit, by century’s end.
I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil / It’s only 4 degrees, it’s only 4 degrees / It’s only 4 degrees, it’s only 4 degrees/ I wanna hear the dogs crying for water / I wanna see the fish go belly-up in the sea / And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures / I wanna see them burn, it’s only 4 degrees
‘TRUTH TO POWER’ (2017)
The pop rock band best known for its bombastic sound turned its attention to climate change in 2017, when it recorded this song for “An Inconvenient Sequel,” the follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth.” The song’s video features lyrics written atop black-and-white images of climate-related crises including collapsing glaciers, rising flood waters and cracked, drought-stricken earth, as well as images of the people affected by it all.
I could tell you I was ageless / But I know you see the light / I could tell you I’m immune to everything / But that’s a lie /Dust don’t turn to flowers / Skies don’t disappear / But I’ve seen truth to power / Oh, if you could see me the way I see you / If you could feel me the way I feel you / You’d be a believer (believer)
As the second decade of the 21st century drew to an end, climate change and popular music became increasingly intertwined. Last summer, a group called Music Declares Emergency formed, with artists like Massive Attack and DJ Spooky calling on governments to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2030. The group’s tagline: “No music on a dead planet.”
And music itself has seemingly changed with our changing climate, with the language of climate change — words like ice cap and glacier — becoming more common even in songs that were not about climate change, like Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself.” (Glacier, in that song’s context, refers to a large diamond.)
Last year Little Nas X tweeted that when he said “i got the horses in the back,” a line in his hit song “Old Town Road,” “it was in reference to reversing the ongoing climate change, water pollution, and catastrophic political climate we are witnessing in these trying times.”
And shortly after Megan Thee Stallion declared 2019 to be “Hot Girl Summer,” the Houston rapper took to Instagram to make it clear that the so-called hot girl lifestyle includes protecting the environment, eventually hosting what she called the first-ever Hottie Beach Clean Up in Malibu, Calif.
‘FEELS LIKE SUMMER’ (2018)
This jam, with its summer sensibilities that hark back to soulful sounds of the 1970s, brings the present into stark relief with its climate change focused lyrics. Its animated music video features a roster of celebrity cameos including Michelle Obama, Will Smith and Beyoncé, and appear to be a subtle commentary on the ways in which celebrity culture distracts us from the effects of climate change.
Every day gets hotter than the one before / Running out of water, it’s about to go down / Go down / Air that kill the bees that we depend upon / Birds were made for singing / Waking up to no sound
‘ALL THE GOOD GIRLS GO TO HELL’ (2019)
In the song’s music video, Ms. Eilish assumes the mantle of a fallen angel who descends into an oil-filled pit as the landscape ignites around her. The song makes explicit reference both to her home state of California burning and to rising sea levels. With its release, the pop musician published this statement on Instagram:
“right now there are millions of people all over the world begging our leaders to pay attention. our earth is warming up at an unprecedented rate, icecaps are melting, our oceans are rising, our wildlife is being poisoned and our forests are burning. on september 23rd, the UN will host the Climate Action Summit to discuss how to tackle these issues. the clock is ticking. on friday september 20th and friday september 27th you can make your voice be heard. take it to the streets.”
Look at you needing me / You know I’m not your friend without some greenery / Walk in wearing fetters / Peter should know better / Your cover up is caving in / Man is such a fool / Why are we saving him? / Poisoning themselves now / Begging for our help, wow! / Hills burn in California / My turn to ignore ya / Don’t say I didn’t warn ya
Twenty years later, what does Smash Mouth’s Mr. Camp think about this trend? Noting that more people are aware of climate change now, he said, “It would be a bonus if I had some part in that.”
“I’m hoping that the generation that’s writing songs now will speak to their generation,” he said, “because it may be the last generation that can actually stop this tipping point.”
Designed and produced by Claire O’NeillCorrection: May 22, 2020
An earlier version of this article gave the wrong title for a song by Smash Mouth. It is “Walkin’ on the Sun,” not “Walking in the Sun.” An earlier version also gave the wrong name for a research project at Yale University. It is the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, not the Yale Project on Climate Change.
This year, I came up with the idea to analyze the frequency of climate change references in American popular music. Culture can be a bellwether, both signaling where we are heading and, occasionally, helping to steer society’s course. And while, anecdotally, it seemed that climate change has been appearing more frequently in music, I wanted to put numbers to it.
I looked at lyrics from a set of songs that the lyric hub Genius identified as containing climate change themes (based on search terms I had provided). And I compared the artists on that list with the Billboard charts, selecting only those who had appeared on domestic charts in the past two decades.
I counted at least 192 references to climate change, 26 of which appeared just last year. For an article, I pared that down to 10 influential songs and spoke with some of the artists.
The first song on the list, “All Star” by the California power-pop band Smash Mouth, might be surprising. But many have pointed to this earworm as the unofficial climate change anthem, and the song’s lyrics have shown up on protest posters and in memes. It’s an infectious song, and now you might be humming the chorus (“Hey now, you’re an all star”) to yourself.
I wanted to know why Greg Camp, the band’s guitarist and songwriter, had chosen to include climate change messaging in a verse of a song that was mostly about self empowerment. I also wanted to know why the rapper Pitbull had slipped climate messaging into dance-friendly tracks — and had even gone so far as to name two albums after the subject. Both told me in a nutshell that climate change matters, and that, as musicians with a platform, they felt an obligation to address it.
There’s some evidence, according to Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, that art, and culture more broadly, can shift people into action on climate change. That more artists are addressing it, “is a mirror to the times,” he said. It’s a reflection of our cultural understanding of climate change and also influences our perception of it.
As a fun bonus, the manager of Smash Mouth sent along a photo of the original handwritten lyrics when I had questions about the song. It’s cool to see how it evolved. And, I must say, Mr. Camp’s handwriting would have passed muster with the nuns who taught me penmanship. To learn more about what the artists had to say and to see the full list, check out the article.
Every once in a while, you encounter a word that seems very much of the moment.
“Cassandrafreude” is one of those words. And yes, there’s a climate change angle.
But first, some context. Cassandrafreude is what’s called a portmanteau word, a combination of two terms into one, like “spork” or “labradoodle.”
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In this case, the two words are “Cassandra” and “schadenfreude.” If you remember your Greek myths, Cassandra had a gift and a curse: she could see the future, but no one would believe her. Schadenfreude, of course, is the German word for feeling pleasure at the misfortune of others. It’s a compound of the words for “harm” and “joy.”
Like all good coinages, it’s broadly useful. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, posted a definition of the word on Twitter: “The bitter pleasure of things going wrong in exactly the way you predicted, but no one believed you when it could have made a difference.”
She added, “I’ve finally discovered the word that describes how nearly every climate scientist feels.” It’s that sense familiar to anyone who works in the field of climate change, or writes about it, of giving warning after warning after warning as the levels of greenhouse gases rise in the atmosphere and the effects of a warming world come in with greater and greater intensity.
Dr. Hayhoe noted in an additional tweet that “there is probably a sizeable number of infectious disease experts and public health professionals who feel the same way,” a reference to scientific experts whose advice and predictions have been disregarded in the coronavirus pandemic. People with other backgrounds began to chime in, as well. “And many an ecologist,” wrote one. “Also, social scientists,” wrote another.
It is important to note one thing that the definition makes clear: the supposedly pleasurable part of Cassandrafreude is anything but. It is a sense, more than anything, of ruefulness, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a technology policy and advocacy group in Washington, who coined the term.
In 2006, he had warned on his blog that an economic meltdown was on its way. In an interview he reminded me that pundits and government officials were still providing “happy talk” about a continued economic boom and a healthy mortgage market. And so, as the Great Recession occurred, he wrote on his blog, “I am experiencing Cassandrafreude.”
“It felt like the fall of Troy must have felt,” he told me. “I was right, and sore about it.” He has used the term many times in his writing since then and, in 2013, created an online page with the definition so that he could link to it whenever he trotted the term out. “It’s a nifty little word,” he said with pride.
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