Ten artists who sang about climate change, from Miley Cyrus to Marvin Gaye

Here are singers and songwriters who have been sounding an alarm about the environment through their music

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When it comes to popular music, climate change is an old song.

For over 80 years, singers and songwriters have discussed the state of the earth over eclectic sounds, from pop and folk to soul and hip-hop music.

While some of these works became hits and staples of their respective genres – their often-breezy sounds don’t paper over the weighty issues they discuss.

As global leaders gather for Cop28 in Dubai, here are 10 songs that address the earth’s changing climate.

1. This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie (1940)

While climate change seemingly came to the public consciousness over the last two decades, some of the themes surrounding the concept have been explored in songs as far back as eighty years ago.

Written partly in response to Irving Berlin's unabashedly patriotic God Bless America, folk music pioneer Guthrie composed a song more expansive in its celebration of the nation.

In addition to surveying the US's majestic landscapes, Guthrie spoke of the need of being responsible stewards of these natural wonders.

This is summed up in the song’s frequent refrain “this land is made for you and me”.

2. Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell (1970)

Released during a period in which the US was convulsed by social unrest spurred by the anti-war and counterculture movements, the Canadian-American folk singer scored an unlikely hit with the quirky Big Yellow Taxi.

Despite the ebullient melodies, the lyrics decry the growing human intervention on our natural habitat, with a chorus warning us: “Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone”.

3. Where do the Children Play by Yusuf/Cat Stevens (1970)

Urbanisation is the theme behind one of the singer-songwriter's biggest hits.

What is the value of human progress, Yusuf argues, if the environmental damage caused puts future generations at risk?

Yusuf puts all those achievements – from “jumbo trains” and “skyscrapers” to “petrol gas” – into perspective with the devastating question “But tell me, where do the children play?”

4. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) by Marvin Gaye (1971)

Gaye shows soul music is capable of discussing the environment in this single from his groundbreaking album What's Going On?

While it's a gorgeous ballad, there's no hiding the urgency in Gaye's vocals as he laments the degradation of our environment.

“Mercy me / Things ain't what they used to be”, he repeats throughout the song, as he describes various forms of industrial pollution.

When it comes to marine life, he laments how our fish are “full of mercury”.

As for skies, he asks “Where did all the blue skies go? / Poison is the wind that blows”.

He then expresses concern about the rapid urbanisation of major cities: “What about this overcrowded land? / How much more abuse from man can she stand?”

5. Blue Sky Mine by Midnight Oil (1990)

Mining may not be a popular topic in pop music, but the influential Australian band explores its human and environmental toll in this fierce rocker.

“The company takes what the company wants / And nothing's as precious as a hole in the ground”, singer Peter Garratt charges. “The balance sheet is breaking up the sky”.

6. All Star by Smash Mouth (1999)

Strip away the sunny and catchy melodies and what you find between the euphoric lyrics is a message to conserve our environment.

In a song celebrating individuality, All Star also warns that such a focus can result in a neglect of the planet.

“It's a cool place and they say it gets colder / You're bundled up now, wait 'til you get older”, sings the late frontman Steve Harwell. “But the meteor men beg to differ / Judging by the hole in the satellite picture”.

7. Wake Up America by Miley Cyrus (2008)

As part of her second album Breakout, then teen-star Cyrus delivers a not-so-subtle paean to sustainability.

While the song was by no means a chart success, it was refreshing to see an unapologetic pop track speak of such pertinent issues.

“Wake up, America / We're all in this together”, says the chorus.

“It's our home so let's take care of it / You know that you want to / You know that you got to”.

8. Trouble in the Water by Common (2014)

US rapper Common shows that the hip-hop genre has something to say about the environment.

The potent Trouble in the Water is a sweeping look at the ramifications of decades of environmental neglect and degradation of the Flint River in Detroit, which has resulted in a catastrophic lack of clean drinking water for the city’s poor neighbourhoods.

Common raps: “When the water starts to kill the fish / That's when you know how ill it is”.

9. Truth to Power by OneRepublic (2017)

Released as part of the soundtrack to 2017 documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the US pop-rock group talks of the need for collective awareness and action when addressing climate change.

“I could write you out a letter / To tell you anything you need”, states the chorus.

“I've seen minutes turn to hours / Hours turn to years / And I've seen truth turn to power”.

10. All the good girls go to hell by Billie Eilish (2022)

The pop star looks at the human impact on the erosion of the environment.

She makes references to bush fires (“hills burning in California”), alarming sea levels (“once the water starts to rise / And heaven's out of sight”), and human apathy surrounding climate change (“Your cover up is caving in / Man is such a fool”).

Updated: November 26, 2023, 3:04 AM