Visualising climate change

How can climate change be better communicated using visual tools?

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.

Landscape visualizations, based on Google Earth and modelling of forest pest epidemics, were used with the Kimberley BC community for adaptation planning.
Credit: O. Schroth, CALP. Mountain Pine Beetle Data source: ILMB, BC Government. Background Image: ©2009 Google Earth. Image ©2009 Province of British Columbia; Image ©2009 Digital Globe; Image ©2009 Terra Metrics.

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).

Key ways that climate change information reaches us, including from our local environment.
Credit: J. Myers

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).

We could require public messaging of annual GHG emissions from power plants: if it’s true, why hide it?
Credit: S Sheppard

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).

Visualization of a raised housing scenario in Delta BC, with and without flooding conditions due to sea level rise.
Credit: D. Flanders and K. Tatebe, CALP, UBC.

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.

3 thoughts on “Visualising climate change”

  1. The problem is which ‘projection’ do you choose to show. The cynic would say only the worst case projections will be shown, however unlikely
    Better to be open and show all projections, sea level as an example, from low to high, people can then use their own judgement, dependent on percieved risk.
    Ie sea level. Some might take descidion to sell, or a business move away from a low lying house ir business property,others may choose to accept a’risk’ and benefit. Overtime, with minimal impact this would not be detrimental. No diiferent to ebbs and flows in rise and fall in properties in locations whose desireability varies over time.

    But, As yet, for example, I do not see any celebrity champions of catastrophic climate change champions selling their beach front properties, nor abstaining from long hall,co2 emitting flights, to low lying exotic holiday destinations.
    That may sound flippant or a cheap shot.But the public do notice if the most vocal, on any issue, appear not to practice whst they preach

    Of course some one say, this shows we are all in ‘denial’ of future climate cstastrophy. I really do understand this hypothesis, but I don’t think it stsnd up to serious scrutiny.

  2. It depends as well on the extent to which the graphics are intended to persuade versus educate. Persuasive graphics work on some, but drive many others away if they recognise the attempted manipulation. Education, on the other hand, promotes the truth more subtly, by enabling people to reach it for themselves.

    For example, the power station chimney you show suggested a few of related graphics to me. One would be a windfarm turbine with the number of birds and bats it had killed that year written down the mast. Making them write “116 Golden Eagles Splatted” would be an emotionally effective message. Why not, if it’s true?

    We could also require that they show the numerical value of the temperature rise averted, and what this works out at as a cost per degree Celcius. That is, after all, what really matters, isn’t it?

    The sea level ones I found interesting, and I do think this is an area where the general public could benefit from better educational graphics.

    The one I’d start with is an explanation of how river deltas and coastal deposition/erosion worked – because it does seem to be a common belief that the land is static and unchanging. Archaological digs are useful in that regard, because you can directly see the layers of history, and that the surface is not static. The formation of river deltas is an easy physics experiment – pour sediment-laden water slowly into a shallow pool, see how the flow slows on reaching sea level, how the plain of sediment deposited comes to be so low and flat. Shows towns on cliffs falling into the sea, and fishing towns left stranded far from the coast by growing mud flats and sand dunes. Show Darwin’s theory on the formation of coral islands. Show how far seas have risen in the past 10,000 years, and all the flat land that has been created in that time frame.

    And show what technology can do about it – show the land reclamation work, show the island building, show the sea defences and flood defences and drainage schemes and the pumps. That’s what Holland’s famous windmills were for. Show us the map of New York before people got there.

    And yes, of course you should show us the costs and consequences of having to do so.

    It’s interesting stuff anyway, and it gives people a background framework of scientific context with which to discuss things like sea level rise intelligently.

    Educate first, then debate. Debating the uneducated is unsporting.

  3. We are a small initiative working on climate change adaptation issues using a new process to help visualize the dynamic elements related to decision making. The process creates a standard so that data can be visualized. Currently we are working with UNDP and the African Adaptation Program(AAP) in Africa…see,

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