Pictures – it’s a matter of perspective

Why a deeper understanding of how images are produced and consumed is so important for the climate change conversation.

This meme was circulating on Facebook yesterday courtesy of Greenpeace UK. At last check it was running at 8,007 likes and 7,532 shares.

Pitting a wind turbine against a coal-fired power station is a common theme among climate change communicators. Green energy company Ecotricity used it extremely successfully in its viral ‘Collapsing Cooling Towers’ video (which has had almost 3 million views to date).

There’s also this photograph on popular image-sharing site Imgur, with the sarcastic caption “No matter how much we love green energy, we have to admit that wind turbines completely destroy the picturesque landscape.” (Can you spot the wind turbine?)

There are no, doubt, many more examples. And why wouldn’t there be? The wind turbine is an icon for sustainability; clean, elegant and, with its smoothly spinning sails, evocative of both a pleasant past and a progressive future.

But there’s also one significant problem with these images. And the caption that accompanies Greenpeace’s illustration highlights it perfectly: “If you’ve got things in perspective, join the movement to protect our planet”. Begging the question, what do they really mean by perspective? Arguably, someone who has “things in perspective” will also recognise – and perhaps point out – that it would actually require hundreds, probably thousands, of wind turbines to replace the single coal-fired power station depicted. Of course, all these images are designed to be symbolic, powerful illustrations of a point that is not designed to be dissected. But the problem is that these images can and will be dissected by anyone whose ‘perspective’ is not totally aligned with the messenger’s.

As we describe in our updated Talking Climate guide to visually communicating climate change, images are powerful tools for getting a message across. But they can also prove to be a bit of a stumbling block. Wind turbines are a common visual trope in both media and marketing when discussing climate change solutions. But it’s possible that their iconic status could actually be doing them more harm than good, with the line between fact and fiction becoming dangerously blurred.

There is a delicate balance to be struck between making an image powerful and ensuring its message is meaningful. It’s important one is not achieved at the expense of the other. Particularly in the liquid world of the internet, where information moves lightening fast and can cross ideological borders with ease. How quickly one of the visuals shown above could be appropriated and then up-ended to make a powerful point that is completely at odds with its original conception. This is just one of many reasons why continued and specific research into how images are produced and consumed – across all types of media and by a variety of audiences – is vital for a better understanding of the climate conversation.

You say “Global Warming”. I say “Climate Change”- Let’s call the whole thing off!

George Marshall argues that debates over whether ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ is the right label detracts from the bigger divisions that come from values, ideology and the absence of social/cultural meanings

This article originally appeared on the Climate Denial and was excerpted, in part, from George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be released by Bloomsbury US in August 2014.


A new US survey by the Yale  Project on Climate Change Communication found that the term “global warming” appears to create a stronger sense of threat, greater proximity and greater desire for action than its long time sibling phrase “climate change”. Is this really so- and does it even matter?

The Yale survey is fascinating  (well for those of us who fixate on such things anyway), showing that people regard global warming as more serious than climate change and are more confident that it is happening.

Especially revealing is that global warming has stronger proximity: People are more likely see it as harming them and their family and more likely to say that it is happening now and affecting current weather. Curiously- and I checked- the polling was conducted during a period of colder than average weather which could have been expected to disadvantage the term global warming.

This is just the latest skirmish in a long running debate about which of these two competing terms should dominate that has rolled along ever since the US scientist Wallace Broecker coined both of the core terms in a single 1975 article “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”

Environmental campaigners hate both terms and seek, intermittently, to introduce new phrases (discussed by Andy Revkin here). Earth scientist James Lovelock for example, complains that global warming sounds like “a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day” and advocates Global Heating. Other proposals have included ‘Global Weirding’, “global climate disruption” and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like Climate Chaos, Climate Crisis or, more recently Dirty Weather. Seth Godin, a communications specialist, wondered whether calling it “Atmosphere Cancer” or “Pollution Death” might not have garnered more concern.  It’s unlikely, since to anyone conservative the terms sound outrageously biased and to anyone else they sound like heavy metal bands.

Having two terms generates confusion and has led to a politicised battle to promote the term that each side assumes will serve its interests.  In the late 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia lobbied in the world climate negotiations for the language of early resolutions to be changed from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ on the assumption that this sounded less emotive and, more importantly, had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels.

In a notorious internal memo to Republicans in 2003 communications consultant Frank Luntz argued that the term climate change sounds more moderate and controllable. As evidence he cited one focus group participant saying that climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”.  The Bush administration duly followed his advice, and President Bush adopted the term climate change in all subsequent speeches.  Ironically climate deniers now accuse environmentalists of seeking to suppress the phrase ‘global warming’ because, they claim, temperatures are no longer increasing.

So, even if the overall picture is that people respond more strongly to the term global warming, there are important underlying divisions. Dr. Ashley Anderson at Colorado State University, one of the authors of the Yale research, said last year in an interview with Carbon Brief:

“The differences in interpretations of the two phrases tend to fall on political lines, with Republicans being less likely to believe global warming is happening than climate change…while Democrats would rate global warming as more serious than climate change.

The new Yale figures suggest that global warming may have a greater advantage with Republicans than previously thought, but this still hides a much greater problem- that the difference in attitudes associated from the rival terms is tiny compared with the yawning gulf between people who think that it (whatever it is called) is happening or is not happening – or whether they even care. In my view polling on climate change can never provide a complete picture because it calls on people to give an opinion on a topic that, in reality, most of them give little if any thought to.

This Yale survey, for example, found that over a third of people thought that the issue- whatever it is called- it should be a “high or very high priority for the president or congress”. But when the Pew Research Centre asked people last year to rank “global warming” (it used that phrase) among twenty other issues that could be a priority for the president it came in at the bottom. Pew has been asking this question every year since 2001 and, even at the peak of public concern around 2007, global warming has never moved off bottom slot, way below such front-of-mind issues as economy, health and deficit, but also below such intangibles as “dealing with the moral breakdown” and “reducing the influence of lobbyists”.

So, yes, people care a bit, and they may care marginally more than that with slightly different terminology. But the critical consideration remains the cultural priming around the issue as a whole. This raises a number of other issues about language that I would have liked Yale to ask: to what extent do people personally identify which either phrase? Can they describe who they think uses each phrase? Which phrase do they associate with their own social in-group and which do they associate with outside groups?

It is most revealing that, when invited to choose “a word that comes to mind”, the strongest response, by far, was “naysaying”– that is to say, the strongest association for either term was with social meaning and conflict rather than the scientific content. This follows closely on research by the University of New Hampshire, released last week, that found that climate change (it used this phrase) is now a more politically divisive issue than gun control, abortion or the death penalty.

In a way then, a little terminological ambiguity is an advantage in the polarised framing war surrounding this issue. I very much hope that communicators do not take the lesson from this that they should all talk from one phrasebook about “global warming”. As soon as we do, that phrase will become irrevocably poisoned by its association with advocates and, every time it is used, will reinforce the cultural battlelines.

And, in any case, does it really matter? Although neither phrase is ideal, neither is disastrously bad either and both have sufficiently bland emptiness that they allow new people to fill them with their own meanings. In the end names become associated with the associations we put on them. Things often thrive with bizarrely inappropriate names. Radio Shack?  Craig’s List?  Sometimes you just have to work with what you have and concentrate on giving it the social meaning that creates conviction.


Don’t give up on engaging conservatives

Paul Connor argues that social psychology findings give hope that conservative audiences can be engaged on climate change.

This guest post is by Paul Connor, a postgraduate researcher in social psychology at the University of Melbourne. His research is currently focused on climate change communication and pro-environmental cultural change processes.

There is little doubt that the issue of climate change has become increasingly polarised along political lines over the past decade. Yet despite this trend, it remains important for climate advocates to remember that this party-line split is far from absolute. In both Australia and the USA, for example, one in four conservative voters still accepts the basic tenets of climate change science, and as the following research suggests, there may be ways of tailoring climate messages to increase their appeal to such audiences.

System-Sanctioned Change

In their 2010 paper, Irina Feygina of New York University and colleagues explored the connection between environmental attitudes and a psychological tendency known as ‘system justification’. This is a  tendency strongly related to conservative political attitudes to defend society’s status quo and see ‘the way things are’ as ‘the ways things should be’. Across two experiments, results showed system justification to be correlated with the denial of environmental problems. Indeed, the extent to which people reported holding system justifying beliefs largely (but not totally) explained the connection between people’s political orientation and their environmental denial.

Following this, Feygina and colleagues presented people with a generic message about the environment, and some of them also a ‘system-sanctioned change’ message, which read:

“Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources”.

While results showed that there was no overall difference between the ‘system sanctioned’ message and the normal message in promoting pro-environmental intentions and behaviours, the system-sanctioned message was significantly more effective among people high in system justification. The authors concluded that: “…reframing environmentalism as supporting (rather than undermining) the American way or life eliminates the negative effect of system justification on pro-environmental behavior”.

Co-Benefits Framing

A 2012 study by Paul Bain from the University of Queensland and colleagues explored whether climate change sceptics could perhaps be sold on climate change action by stressing its possible co-benefits in addition to mitigating climate change. They presented a large sample of people (including 128 climate sceptics) one of three ‘personal testimonials’ relating different reasons for supporting climate action.

The first suggested climate action would create a friendlier society (“I think it’d make us more considerate in other ways – like looking out for each other, and caring for people in the community”). The second suggested it would promote societal development (“Taking action to reduce energy pollution would lead to new scientific breakthroughs and new industries”). And the third suggested it would prevent environmental destruction (“We’d be less affected by food and water shortages”).

As expected, results showed that the testimonials promoting the co-benefits of climate change action produced significantly higher pro-environmental intentions among the sceptics than the testimonial focused on environmental destruction. Moreover, the co-benefits testimonials were also more effective in producing environmental citizenship intentions even among the climate change believers (though this effect did not reach statistical significance).

Stressing the Consensus

Research indicates that the public vastly underestimates the level of consensus around climate change science. A 2011 study in the USA found that among its 751 participants, 66% could be classified as ‘consensus not understood’. Moreover, the results showed that there was a strong correlation between people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus around climate change and their support for climate change policies, with people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus were shown to explain nearly 60% of the variance in their support for climate policies.

Extending upon these findings, Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and colleagues investigated the effects of increasing people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus. They began by asking people how many out of 100 climate scientists they believed endorsed the consensus view. Following this, they provided half of the people with information about the factual 97% scientific consensus on climate change.

They then asked again about people’s climate beliefs, as well as their endorsement of ‘free-market’ ideology, which is known to be related to lower belief in climate change. Results showed that providing the consensus information had a large effect.

On the follow-up questioning, the group that received the consensus information showed significantly higher belief in climate change than the group not provided the consensus information. In addition, while endorsement of free market capitalism displayed its normal correlation with lower belief in climate change among the group who did not receive the consensus information, among the people who received the consensus information there was no such correlation.

The authors concluded that “the role of ideology was drastically attenuated when participants were provided with information about the scientific consensus”. These studies indicate that climate activists do not necessarily need to give up on conservative-minded demographics. Instead, they show us that by keeping in mind the arguments and frames that appeal to conservatives, the non-climate related benefits of climate action, and the importance of an accurate understanding of the scientific consensus, there are ways of subtly tailoring communications that will be more effective among more conservative audiences.

Download COIN’s report on engaging with conservative audiences here.

God & Bombs: reframing climate change

This week Barack Obama framed climate change as a patriotic, religious responsibility for Americans, while Greenpeace warned of ‘carbon bombs’. Are these good ways of talking about climate change?

Barack Obama’s re-inauguration provided plenty to talk about – but only one real surprise. After a long, frustrating first term in which climate change was notable only by its absence from policy and rhetoric, Obama headlined his speech with a strong, unambiguous commitment to renew America’s efforts to tackle climate change.

It is more than a little absurd that a few sentences were received with such desperate gratitude by environmental campaigners around the world. That the leader of the American government acknowledges that something ought to be done about climate change should not be news in 2013.

But it is – and thankfully, Obama’s climate silence is finally over:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

The language with which the climate silence was broken was intriguing.

For a speech of this significance – setting the agenda for his second and final term in office – every word would have been crafted and sweated over. So when Obama talks about ‘our obligations as Americans’ (patriotism), refers to a duty of care from God to care for the planet (religion), and confronts directly the science-denial of the Republican Right (‘some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science’), he is using some very interesting and strategically deliberate ways of framing climate change.

Obama’s choice of rhetorical frames tells us more than simply that climate change is back on the agenda. It tells us how climate change is going to be re-animated in the American mind – signposts to the way that Obama wants Americans to think about climate change.

Obama wants to persuade the American public that not acting on climate change is a betrayal to their children, God and their country – powerful, deeply American values. If he manages to do this, he will have achieved what every environmental campaigner for the past two decades has failed to do: break climate change out of its ‘environmentalist’ niche, and make it something that ‘ordinary’ folk care about.

As if to answer Obama’s rallying call for confronting climate change, Greenpeace released a report identifying 14 enormous fossil fuel projects that would – if they were all to go ahead – push us past the point of ‘no return’ regarding the ‘2 degrees’ limit that is widely considered to represent ‘dangerous’ climate change.

From offshore oil drilling in Brazil, to the Tar Sands in Canada, these industrial projects would all but condemn us to a hugely unpredictable, unprecedented and over-heated world. They are climate disasters waiting to happen, or, as Greenpeace describe them, ‘carbon bombs’.

As James Murray, editor of Business Green pointed out, ‘carbon bomb’ is an incredibly powerful term:

“For too long environmental campaigners and green businesses have spoken about ‘carbon
emissions’ and ‘climate change’ and ‘sustainability’. It is time to talk of ‘climate crisis’, ‘gargantuan carbon bubbles’, and ‘carbon bombs’…The ‘carbon bomb’ is in danger of going off. We have never needed the clean tech bomb disposal team more”

Murray’s views will resonate with many climate change campaigners frustrated with the lack of urgency that has infected everything from international negotiations to behaviour change campaigns. The carbon bomb is a war metaphor. A co-ordinated societal response on the scale of a war effort would undoubtedly be more proportionate than the extensive deckchair re-arrangement plan currently in place.

But is it a useful way of reaching the un-convinced, or otherwise disinterested?

There is a fair amount of academic research that has asked whether – and under what circumstances – using fear and threats is a good tactic for public engagement. The take home message is that fear can motivate engagement and behaviour change, but only when the threat (e.g. lung cancer from smoking) is personal, tangible, direct and something under and individual’s control.

As Boris Johnson’s willful and calculated misrepresentation of the difference between weather and climate proved this week, the evidence outside of people’s windows can be important. In the US, Hurricane Sandy prompted Mayor Bloomberg to break cover on climate change. In Australia, adding a new colour to the temperature scale has provided a powerful visual signal that the climate is changing.

But in the UK, in January 2013, we see snow but no carbon bombs.