Humans are visual animals: our understanding of the world is dominated by what we see, and how this makes us feel.
There is no lack of potential climate imagery - every day, thousands of images of climate change are shared by journalists, activists, bloggers and educators around the world. but climate change isn’t an easy issue to visualise. Characterised by uncertainty and made up of long-term, cumulative processes that often cannot be directly observed, it is for many people – particularly in industrialised nations – intangible and abstract. A decision made by activists in the 1980s to associate climate change with one iconic animal (the polar bear) has provided a simple visual shorthand for the issue. But it has also reinforced the impression that climate change is a distant problem, and arguably ‘closed down’ the climate discourse around a concept that is remote from people’s day-to-day lives.
Despite decades of public engagement (and the proliferation of research on the verbal and written communication of climate change), there is sparse evidence on which to base a choice that many face on a daily basis: how to communicate climate change effectively using the visual medium. And as a result, the iconography of climate change has remained relatively static.
In response to this challenge, we are pleased to announce a brand new project - Climate Visuals - which is the result of a major collaboration between Climate Outreach, the Global Call for Climate Action, the University of Massachusetts, 10:10 and the Minor Foundation.
Climate Visuals is an evidence-based online resource for visual climate change communication. Based on research involving thousands of citizens in the UK, US and Germany during 2015, the website contains a growing, interactive library of images to provide inspiration and guidance for journalists, campaigners, bloggers and anyone else using imagery to communicate about climate change. Climate Visuals is the first of its kind.
We carried out four in-depth discussion groups (in London and Berlin) to provide a detailed picture of how people respond to different images of climate change, and then followed up with an extensive 3 country survey of 3000 people. Pulling together the key findings from this research, we identified seven principles for more effective visual communication about climate change. Some of them will be familiar to photographers, but others may be a bit more of a surprise - take a look and let us know what you think at www.climatevisuals.org - we hope you are as excited about it as we are.
Seven Key Principles for Visual Climate Change Communications
Show ‘real people’ not staged photo-ops
A person expressing an identifiable emotion is powerful. But our discussion groups favoured ‘authentic’ images over staged photographs, which they saw as gimmicky or even manipulative. Politicians – notoriously low on credibility and authenticity – attracted some of the lowest scores (in all three nations) in our survey.
Tell new stories
Images that participants could quickly and easily understand – such as smokestacks, deforestation, and polar bears on melting ice – tended to be positively rated in our online survey (which captured rapid responses to images, rather than deeper debate). Familiar, ‘classic’ images may be especially useful for audiences with limited knowledge or interest in climate change, but they also prompted cynicism and fatigue in our discussion groups. They are effective ways of communicating to an audience that ‘this story is about climate change’. But is it a story they want to hear? Less familiar (and more thought-provoking) images can help tell a new story about climate change, and remake the visual representation of climate change in the public mind.
Show climate causes at scale
We found that people do not necessarily understand the links between climate change and their daily lives. Individual ‘causes’ of climate change (such as meat-eating) may not be recognised as such, and if they are, may provoke defensive reactions. If communicating the links between ‘problematic’ behaviours and climate change, it is best to show these behaviours at scale – e.g. a congested highway, rather than a single driver.
Climate impacts are emotionally powerful
Survey participants in all three nations were moved more by climate impacts – e.g. floods, and the destruction wrought by extreme weather – than by ‘causes’ or ‘solutions’. Images of climate impacts can prompt a desire to respond, but because they are emotionally powerful, they can also be overwhelming. Coupling images of climate impacts with a concrete behavioural ‘action’ for people to take can help overcome this.
Show local (but serious) climate impacts
When images of localised climate impacts show an individual person or group of people, with identifiable emotions, they are likely to be most powerful. But there is a balance to be struck (as in verbal and written communication) between localising climate change (so that people realise the issue is relevant to them) and trivialising the issue (by not making clear enough links to the bigger picture).
Be very careful with protest imagery
Images depicting protests (or protesters) attracted widespread cynicism and some of the lowest ratings in our survey. In our discussion groups, images of (what people described as) ‘typical environmentalists’ only really resonated with the small number of people who already considered themselves as activists and campaigners. Most people do not feel an affinity with climate change protesters, so images of protests may reinforce the idea that climate change is for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. Protest images involving people directly affected by climate impacts were seen as more authentic and therefore more compelling.
Understand your audience
Unsurprisingly, levels of concern/scepticism about climate change determined how people reacted to the images we tested. But other differences emerged too – images of ‘distant’ climate impacts produced much flatter emotional responses among those on the political right. Images depicting ‘solutions’ to climate change generated mostly positive emotions – for those on the political right, as well as those on the left.