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Sharing powerful visual stories about climate change at COP22 and beyond

By Adam Corner on November 17, 2016

COP22 is a stark contrast to the previous year’s event in Paris in many respects, including the way the event looks: the grey industrial tones of the Le Bourget location in Paris have been replaced with North African pastels in the autumnal sun.

The visual appearance of the two conferences might seem a superficial difference to focus on – particularly with the spectre of Donald Trump’s election (and all that his new administration could mean for US energy and climate change policy) hanging over the proceedings like an (ob)noxious smell. But as our latest publication argues, the visual identity of key events in the climate calendar like the annual COPs are in fact a crucial influence on the way the wider world (beyond the green bubble) engages with climate change.

Building on our ‘Climate Visuals’ project – international social research that produced seven key principles for visual climate change communication and an evidence-based online image bank – we analysed the dominant images coming out of the last COP in Paris. As might be expected, we found plenty of images of politicians and negotiators inside the COP celebrating as they sealed the deal, and lots of photos of protesters outside of the COP. But what was surprising was that this was pretty much all we found. Overwhelmingly, the images we reviewed were either literal documentation of the inside of the COP, or staged protests by demonstrators on the outside.

As our Climate Visuals research shows, this is far from ideal. We found that overly ‘staged’ protest images were often perceived as gimmicky or even manipulative. People struggled to identify with activists in polar bear and penguin costumes, holding placards with slogans that the participants in our research often didn’t understand. And politicians were generally distrusted, and seen as self-serving spokespeople for climate change.

So can we do better with the visual vocabulary that defines the COPs – one of the few times in the year that the world is paying attention to climate change? What visual language are we using – and what message are people receiving?

That was a question we explored in a workshop on Tuesday at COP22, attended by leading NGOs, science-policy professionals, and photographers. We interviewed some of the key voices in visual climate change communication in the lead-up to COP22, and mapped our research onto the points they raised.

One of the central issues we discussed in the workshop was the importance of showing ‘ordinary people’ (telling a human story) in images of COPs, and beyond. For anyone with a basic familiarity with photography, this might seem like an obvious point. But the proportion of climate images that show people-less arrays of solar panels, that are staged photo-opportunities, or that show politicians in grey suits staring into space is surprisingly high.

Hoda Baraka, Communications Director at, made the important point that when you ask people to create or curate their own visual climate stories (as 350 are in their Our Climate Stories project), the images people take or select are very different to the standard lexicon of climate campaigning. Real people affected by or responding to climate change are preferred to images of semi-professional protestors.

The photographer and campaigner Shailendra Yashwant argued that the problem with most ‘environmental’ photography is that it tends to focus on ‘the environment’ as something separate from ‘people’. He suggested that photographers need to be embedded in climate campaigns from the early stages, and should be commissioned to take photos of human stories that involve climate change, not ‘climate change photos’ per se, in order to connect more effectively.

And the climate/media academic Max Boykoff highlighted the importance of joining up the dots between research and practice on visual climate change communication – collaborating on projects that allow learning for researchers, but also provide opportunities for people to engage creatively with what climate change means for  their lives.

Perhaps the strongest message from the workshop, though, was the value of bringing together people from different disciplines and perspectives. It is possible to move towards a more diverse, compelling visual language for climate change, but this will require researchers, campaigners, communicators and photographers to cooperate more strategically.

That’s exactly what we want to do in the coming years with the Climate Visuals programme – build a community of people who can work together to expand  the visual vocabulary of climate change, and tell new visual stories that can engage beyond the usual suspects.

Anecdotally, the visual themes at COP22 seem a little different – there are still plenty of expressionless politicians, and hackneyed environmentalist imagery, but there is less in the way of staged demonstrations, and a greater focus on regionally-relevant climate solutions. And even though you can find the odd one hanging around, it’s a little warm for polar bear costumes.

Look out for our full analysis of COP22 imagery in the coming weeks – we’ll be commenting on the differences between the Marrakech and Paris events, flagging images that are heading in the right direction and highlighting imagery that maybe isn’t sending the best message. And we’ll be using our Climate Visuals research as a platform to shift the visual discourse on climate change out of the green niche that it is still in many ways stuck in, and into the mainstream.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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