Visual communication of climate change

Images are powerful tools for getting a message across but they can cause problems for climate change communicators.

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Images are powerful tools for getting a message across but they can cause problems for climate change communicators. Characterised by uncertainty and made up of long-term, cumulative processes, climate change is for many audiences – particularly those in industrialised nations – vague and abstract, making it very difficult to visualise.

Despite this, there is a considerable quantity and diversity of climate change images to be found. Most common are those depicting the causes and impacts of climate change (smokestacks, Arctic sea ice and polar bears, for example), as well as graphical or scientific representations, such as diagrams of the greenhouse effect. Images depicting action, mitigation and adaption on climate change (climate protests, international leaders signing agreements and people installing solar panels, for example), can also be found, but are far less common (O’Neill & Smith 2014).

Unsurprisingly, significant differences have been found in the effect these two distinct visual discourses have on audiences. Dramatic and potentially fear-inducing images like those in the first group can capture people’s attention and make climate change seem important, but they can also act to distance viewers (both psychologically and geographically) leaving them feeling overwhelmed or helpless (O’Neill et al 2013; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole 2009).

Images in the second group, however, tend to make people feel more able to do something about climate change, but at the same time can also reduce people’s sense that the issue is an important one (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole 2009). Research into responses to images of local climate change impacts reveal similarly contradictory results. According to Nicholson-Cole (2005) participants often elaborate that they are more touched by national and local imagery because it’s easier to relate to and consequently more upsetting. However, in research by O’Neill and Hulme four years later, the same reasoning is used by participants to say why local icons are disengaging: “it will only affect locals and it not as much of a global issue”.

Kate Manzo (2010) also explores the dominant alternatives to fear-laden images, suggesting they have tended to be depictions of renewable energy and altered weather states. She claims, however, that depicting weather is risky because no single event can ever be conclusively attributed to climate change. While images of renewable energy, although a positive icon for many in the environmental movement (and perceived positively at a general level), causes controversy wherever specific sitings of renewable technologies are proposed. People like the idea of wind turbines, but many people do not want them near their homes or in previously unspoilt areas.

So in short, the most common climate images around today tend to either make the issue of climate change appear salient or promote feelings of self-efficacy. Few, if any, appear able to do both. This is not to say there aren’t images, or groups of images, that are able to strike the right balance, but discovering them requires in-depth research into target audiences – as Kate Manzo’s findings also imply. Nicholson-Cole (2005) goes further, explaining that people’s prior perceptions, experiences, attitudes, social backgrounds, cultural orientation and behavioural dispositions all influence reactions they will have to images of climate change, the messages they take away and whether they act on the basis of the visual communications they have received.

Taking a bottom-up approach, then, is likely to spur fresh discussion and reveal new directions for climate change communication. One way of exploring this could be through participatory image-making methods such as Photovoice or Photo-Elicitation, where individuals are asked to create images or groups of images that they feel produce a powerful effect (Baldwin & Chandler 2012). Another could be by creating ‘experiential’ learning environments such as interactive simulations where people can ‘see’ for themselves what hap¬pens when, for example, levels of carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere (Sterman 2011). Sterman argues that without this kind of inter¬active learning about climate science – letting ordinary people ‘experiment’ with different aspects of the climate system in simulations – understanding of climate change risks will never improve.


Baldwin, C., Chandler, L. (2010). ’At the water’s edge’: community voices on climate change. Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, 15(7), 637-649

Hespanha, S.R. (2011). Thematic and affective content in textual and visual communication about climate change: historical overview of mass media sources and empirical investigation of emotional responses. PhD thesis, Geography. University of California, Santa Barbara.

Manzo, K. (2010). Beyond polar bears? Re-envisioning climate change.Meteorological Applications 17, 196-208.

Nicholson-Cole, S. (2005). Representing climate change futures: a critique on the use of images for visual communication. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 29, 255-273.

O’Neill, S.J, Hulme, M. (2009). An iconic approach for representing climate change. Global Environmental Change, 19, 402-410.

O’Neill, S.J. and Smith, N. (2014). Climate change and visual imagery. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 5, pp.73-87.

O’Neill, S.J., et al. (2013). On the use of imagery for climate change engagement. Global Environmental Change, 2, 413-421.

O’Neill, S., & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear won’t do it”: Promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations. Science Communication, 30(3), 355-379.

Sterman, J.D. (2011). Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world. Climatic Change 108, 811-826.

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