Visualising climate change
How can something that is largely ‘invisible’ be communicated using visual tools? This is the question that Professor Stephen Sheppard asks in this guest blog post, summarising some of the research in his new book ‘Visualizing Climate Change‘.
The power of visual media is widely acknowledged. Why then do we see so few sustained and meaningful approaches to visual communication on climate change? Would improved visual communication actually lead to better understanding and more action on climate change?
The difficulties of visually communicating climate change have been lamented before. Climate change is still largely “invisible” in the industrialized temperate countries, where impacts are less severe and we are buffered by our financial and technological resources. Common scientific media such as global temperature maps do not move people to take action. While attempts to visualize future climate change impacts in climate ads or movies have grabbed attention, they have been criticized as alarmist, inaccurate, demotivating, or too superficial to stimulate social change.
To meet these challenges, researchers have been experimenting with more systematic ways to engage people with visual media and make climate information more salient. Research to date indicates that certain kinds of visualization – such as movies, thermal imaging, Google Earth (Figure 1) and videogames – can indeed have significant effects on people’s understanding, attitudes, and sometimes even policies on climate change. However, these methods and results have not yet been widely disseminated or taken up.
To address this gap, I have pulled together key lessons learned from research and practical experience with visualization in real communities, in a new book – ‘Visualizing Climate Change: A Guide to Visual Communication of Climate Change and Developing Local Solutions’, published by Earthscan/Routledge.
The book lays out principles for using visual media in climate change engagement, drawing on the fields of psychology, public participation, communications, and visualization. These principles emphasize clarity, vividness, defensibility, personal/local relevance, and practicality, to help us use visual media responsibly and effectively (Sheppard and Cizek, 2009).
With over 600 colour graphics, the book provides a visual narrative revealing the local causes and impacts of climate change as well mitigation and adaptation responses. It is intended as a resource not only for communicators, educators and researchers on climate change but also for community members and local governments seeking to effect change. Realistically, every community in the world will sooner or later have to make some tough decisions in responding to climate change.
The book offers a new climate change lens with which to see our everyday lives, by fostering more careful observation of our changing environment, improving visual literacy on climate change, and reframing how we perceive our world. Successful visual communication involves not only a visual stimulus (what is in front of our eyes) but also how we mentally process what we see (what is inside our heads). Our personal and cultural filters influence how we interpret visual information in the media or in the local landscape (Figure 2).
The key is to make climate change (and the altered carbon cycle that fuels it) more local, more visible, and more connected to our lives. By using compelling visual imagery, making the science less abstract and providing local context, we hope to counteract unintended or deliberate misinformation often seen in the media.
However, to foster new ways of seeing and to deliver compelling imagery, we need better tools and interactive methods to engage, inform and empower people.
These ‘Visual Learning Tools’ do not have to be high-tech. For example, local communities can prepare a neighbourhood climate change photo-album or face-book page, to make visible the impacts of climate change, highlight local sources of greenhouse gases, and illustrate precedents for reducing carbon footprints and vulnerabilities. For instance, this can reveal how we often conceal or overlook our high carbon usage (eg. screened electricity meters and buried natural gas supplies). Other techniques described in the book include ‘landscape messaging’ to enhance the visibility of carbon, impacts and solutions through design, signage, and outdoor labelling (Figure 3).
Some visual learning tools can help our foresight by providing unique, evidence-based views into our own possible futures. In addition to information graphics, animations, and GIS mapping of climate change projections, we can build and realistically visualize science-based scenarios to illustrate future local conditions. I call this 4D visualization.
Visualizations can be applied through a ‘climate change visioning process’, informed by the best available data and models, as a participatory planning tool to engage local citizens and decision-makers. An example is the coastal community of Delta near Vancouver, Canada, threatened by sea level rise. Here, stakeholders and officials are using a visioning process developed at the University of British Columbia (Pond et al, 2010) to grapple with major decisions on scenarios such as raising houses and roads, building offshore barrier islands, or gradually retreating from vulnerable neighbourhoods (Figure 4).
Most people have never been shown pictures of projected climate change impacts in their own backyards or alternative low– vs. high-carbon futures. Participants in our research have indicated this can be a transformational experience.
The positive response so far to these forms of engagement provides hope that, with more community uptake and further testing, creative but science-based visual media can contribute more effectively to climate change solutions.
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