Blog post

Visualising climate change

Jul 24, 2012 by | 3 Comments

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, CALPUBC.

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 Comments + Add Comment

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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