Visual communication of climate change
Images are powerful communication tools – but they have proven to be something of a sticking point for climate change communicators. This is because for most audiences in industrialised nations, climate change is something vague, abstract and very difficult to visualise.
In the UK, for example, it is difficult to point to any easily visualised impacts of climate change that have already occurred. The seasons are changing, and (like everywhere else) average temperatures are gradually rising, but it is difficult to detect this without studying the weather and climate carefully.
Attempts to create artists’ impressions of what the future impacts of climate change will be have often been met with derision from climate sceptics for being alarmist. But perhaps more importantly, climate change communication specialists have questioned whether apocalyptic images of major cities underwater or storm surges are actually doing more harm than good.
Because meaningful images of climate change in industrialised countries are hard to come by, many communicators have looked for visual evidence where the impacts of climate change are already being felt – such as in drought-prone or low-lying developing countries, or the polar ice caps. Particularly popular images used by campaigners include the polar bear, and starving children.
However, while these images have the virtue of being genuine representations of the impacts of climate change (rather than artists’ impressions of the future), they have also been criticised by climate change communication experts as being geographically (and psychologically) distant from the audience being communicated to. Put bluntly, why should people in wealthy, industrialised nations care about starving children in Somalia or the plight of polar bears? Certainly some people do – but these are likely to be the people who are already engaged with climate change. Using visual imagery to reach beyond the usual suspects is more difficult.
There is now some academic research that has looked specifically at the effect of using different images to represent climate change on public concern and perceptions. Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole (2009) found that images that induced fear (such as environmental refugees, or ‘drowning’ polar bears) were good for attracting attention, but ineffective at motivating genuine personal engagement (i.e. doing something about it!) This result fits with other research on using fear to motivate personal engagement with climate change.
Un-threatening images that linked to people’s everyday actions and concerns were more effective – and this finding links directly to work on social norms to promote sustainable behaviour. Showing people pictures of other people (‘like them’) engaging in meaningful sustainable behaviours (rather than scaring them with apocalyptic images) is likely to be a more productive way of motivating sustainable behaviour.
In a paper assessing how climate change has been visually represented ‘beyond polar bears’, Kate Manzo (Manzo, 2010) suggested that the dominant alternatives to fear-laden images have tended to be renewable energy and pictures of different weather states. There are also problems with both of these: depicting extreme weather is risky, because no single weather event can ever be conclusively attributed to climate change. And 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. The safest options are those that connect on a personal level with the audience and demonstrate positive mitigation or adaptation actions rather than emphasising the potential impacts.
In a recent paper in a special issue of the journal Climatic Change, John Sterman (Sterman, 2011) argued that effectively communicating climate change requires different modes of communication, including ‘experiential’ learning environments such as interactive simulations where people can ‘see’ for themselves what happens when (for example) levels of carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere. Sterman argued that without this kind of interactive 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.
Manzo, K. (2010). Beyond polar bears? Re-envisioning climate change. Meteorological Applications 17, 196–208.
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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