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We love polar bears, just not as the star of the climate story

By Lauren Armstrong on February 27, 2024

Qeqertaq Arnatassiaq and Niels Molgard divert an iceberg in Greenland.

It’s International Polar Bear day! These awesome and, let’s be honest, super cute creatures, have been an iconic climate change image for a long time. But images used around climate change can and should move beyond visual clichés and be more diverse if we want to tell a new climate story. One of progress and possibility.

Why are polar bear images problematic?

The polar bear has been a good ambassador for climate change. They do make people want to act (but more to help the polar bear, rather than to address the root cause of climate change). 

But, in our Climate Visuals research typical and overused ‘climate change’ images (sorry polar bear friends, we’re talking about you) were met with fatigue and cynicism. Although these familiar ‘classic’ images do flag to audiences that ‘this is a climate change story’ we also need to ask if that’s the only story we want to tell?

As our Climate Visuals Manager, Alastair Johnstone explains, “for many, polar bears also represent a far away story that few people can actually relate to, and there is very little ‘possibility’ and agency depicted. This doesn’t energise people to engage with a climate story.”

When a friend tells you about a problem they’re having, how often is your first instinct to try and solve it? Well, imagine your friend is a polar bear, and you need to try and stop their house from melting… sounds like a pretty strange and insurmountable problem to me. But when given a problem, humans instinctively want to do something about it. If we can’t, it doesn’t feel great. 

A lack of diversity of images is also restrictive on the different stories of climate. It leads to a poor representation of people’s experiences and so misses out on the breadth of connections that can be made with audiences. We need stories that show the urgency of the situation, but also ones that celebrate solutions and give audiences a sense of possibility.

A number of media outlets, including the BBC and The Guardian, have made an intentional shift away from polar bear imagery. But the use of visual cliches and images that are narrow representations of experiences of climate change is still pervasive.

Instead of polar bears, use the breadth of climate stories

Our Climate Visuals evidence base highlights 7 principles for effective imagery around climate:

The seven Climate Visuals principles

[Climate Visuals Manager] Alastair Johnstone recommends “showing real people, and pairing emotionally powerful imagery of climate impacts with photographs focusing on climate solutions can move your audience with visuals that convey agency.” 

Images that follow these visual principles help to make things relatable to your audience. They show the urgency of climate change, but also that people can, and are, taking action. 

Showing the possible and giving a sense of agency is important. Overly distressing images and messaging in isolation can cause people to respond with  inaction and hopelessness. As Kris de Meyer reminds us, action leads to more action, so getting the balance right in how we communicate around climate is crucial.

At Climate Outreach, we set up the Climate Visuals library as an evidence-based resource of climate photography to help encourage the use of impactful climate change photography and widen and diversify the visual climate story. 

We have several collections freely available for use in the non-profit, editorial and educational sectors. This includes our new Visualising Air Pollution, as well as Ocean Visuals and Visualizing Climate Change collections. We also have a recently added collection Images for Wikipedia, which have Creative Commons licenses.

Finally… we do love polar bears, just not as the star of the climate story

We do love polar bears. They are incredible creatures. But we need more stories to communicate how climate affects us all on a global and local level. How it affects us at intersections, such as health and food. But also visual stories that show a human connection and that people care. That there are solutions. And that action is happening around the world. This is how we can move to a new climate story. One of progress, possibility and hope.

Got any questions? Get in touch!

By Lauren Armstrong

Lauren is part of the Communications team at Climate Outreach, working to share insights and materials to support government, organisations and individuals engage a wide range of people with climate change. Lauren has worked in communications for a number of years across energy, science and consultancy landscapes.

Lauren holds a Master’s in Climate Change from King’s College London, a highly multidisciplinary degree pulling from both physical and social sciences. Her thesis explored the role of gender in peer-group perceptions of climate scientists’ media statements, and was published in 2021. With a love of environmental sciences and psychology, working in communications to further climate action is a perfect combination of her interests and experience. She believes using evidence-based techniques to engage diverse stakeholders is key to tackling climate change.

In her spare time, Lauren enjoys trying new things (successfully or unsuccessfully), the outdoors, and reading.

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