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Reports & guides | 18 February 2020

The air we breathe

Air pollution imagery can communicate the health impacts of climate change powerfully – read this web report to find out more.

Executive summary

New survey research – the first of its kind – reveals how the UK public engages with imagery communicating the health impacts of climate change (and the health benefits of low carbon measures).

Images showing air pollution (compared to images of floods, heat stress, and infectious disease) were found to be more effective for visually communicating the health impacts of climate change: the health consequences of climate impacts other than air pollution are not yet visually salient in the public mind.

While it is crucial to help audiences join the dots between the range of climate impacts and public health – from flooding to heat stress – this survey suggests that information and imagery focusing on air quality could be particularly engaging for UK audiences at present.

Visual communication on the health impacts of climate change should therefore:

  • build on the salience of air pollution as an issue with links to climate change to create a visual narrative of climate impacts that is people-focused and relatable and which introduces the link between health and other climate impacts.
  • be clear about the ways in which air quality can be linked to climate change, for example when rising summer temperatures create air pollution hotspots in urban centres.
  • lead with images that are likely to convey people’s vulnerability and susceptibility to the health risks of air pollution/climate change.
  • combine these health-impact images with solutions-focused photos that build a sense of ‘efficacy’, and highlight positive social norms (around people taking relevant climate actions).
Campaigners from Friends of the Earth Scotland gather to demand clean air.

Climate and health in the UK

The ways in which climate change can affect human health are many and varied. In the UK risks to human health are posed by heat stress and flooding, new and emerging pests and diseases, poor air quality, and reduced food security – with such impacts also increasing negative outcomes for mental health. But although the health and well being of vulnerable groups in the UK is a focus of public concern, the level of knowledge among the general population of the links between climate change and health is currently low.

Overcoming the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change – why images matter for communicating the health impacts of climate change

For a long time, one of the biggest barriers to public engagement with climate change was the so-called ‘psychological distance’ of the issue. With any number of more immediate concerns to focus on, it was easy for people in countries like the UK to perceive the risks of climate change as ‘not here, not now, and not likely to happen to me’.

Despite the sudden political salience of climate change, and daily news reports of a rapidly changing climate, the issue can still seem remote for people in countries like the UK where bushfires and hurricanes are not a familiar threat. Although climate change is getting ‘closer to home’, the UK public still tends to see major climate impacts as something for other people in other places to worry about.

As our Climate Visuals research has established, a more people-focused, relatable visual language for climate change can improve communication and engagement on this crucial issue. At the same time, many studies have pointed to the potential benefit of emphasising the health risks from climate impacts and the health benefits of low carbon policies. In recent years, health practitioners have played an increasingly central role in sounding the alarm about climate change, with initiatives like the Lancet Planetary Health Commission making clear that many of the impacts of climate change are experienced by individuals and communities as threats to their physical and mental health.

7 principles for visual climate change communication

So can images of the health impacts of climate change – and low carbon measures that can create health benefits – bring climate change home for UK citizens?

A survey of 1000 UK citizens

An online survey of just over 1000 UK citizens was conducted during 2019. Participants viewed a range of images showing different categories of UK climate impacts with direct health implications: flooding, heat-stress, infectious diseases and air pollution. Participants answered a series of questions about these images, and also viewed a smaller number of ‘solutions’ images (i.e. positive societal responses related to climate change health impacts).

Air pollution affects us all, normal people in the western world.  The picture clearly identifies with my thoughts on it.”

The survey tested a range of different research questions, and explored a number of different psychological variables – such as ‘perceived severity’ (how serious impacts are perceived to be), and ‘perceived susceptibility’ (how vulnerable people felt toward impacts). For a fuller description of the methods please refer to the appendix below.

I am asthmatic, and already struggle to breathe right - pollution levels increasing would drastically affect me.”

Cyclling through Oxford city centre during rush hour

Key findings & recommendations

  • Images of air pollution were consistently found to be the most effective for visually communicating the health impacts of climate change. These images produced the highest ratings of concern about climate change and respondents also rated air pollution images as the most ‘representative of climate change’ (compared to the other impacts shown).
  • People reported feeling more vulnerable and susceptible towards air pollution, relative to the other types of impacts explored (flooding, heat stress and infectious disease).
  • Air pollution was also the issue that most people felt they could do something about (a sense of ‘efficacy’). 75% said air pollution was the climate impact they felt they could do most about personally – compared to floods (6%), heat stress (12%), or infectious disease (7%).
  • A smaller set of ‘solutions’ images were also tested – these images, in line with previous research, consistently produced higher levels of ‘efficacy’ (the sense of being able to make a difference) than the images of health impacts. This is important because previous research suggests that potentially threatening information related to health should be matched with appeals to efficacy, to prevent defensive or avoidant reactions.
Back view of technician with electrical screwdriver standing in front of unfinished high exterior solar panel photo voltaic system pointing at workers connecting panels to high steel platform.

I think that air pollution is the most serious one because it would affect everyone indiscriminately. There is no way to avoid it, there is no element of luck involved.”

Obgerel, 29, cries as she holds her three months-old baby daughter Suikhan, who suffers from respiratory complications in a paediatric emergency unit in one of the city's hospitals in the capital, January 21, 2019. She explains that she had taken her daughter to the hospital the day before and then when she arrived the baby could hardly breathe. An ever-increasing number of children are suffering from respiratory related illnesses, stretching health infrastructures to the limit in Ulaanbaatar.
Photo credit: Siegfried Modola / Climate Visuals Photography award runner up

A mother in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia holds her infant daughter who is suffering from a respiratory illness due to toxic fumes from 200,000 households in the city burning raw coal to keep warm.

We recommend that visual communication on the health impacts of climate change:

  • builds on the salience of air pollution as a climate impact to create a visual narrative of climate impacts that is people-focused and relatable (whilst being clear about the ways climate change can reduce air quality).
  • foregrounds images that are likely to convey to people their vulnerability and susceptibility to the health risks of climate change.
  • crucially, combines these health-impact images with solutions-focused photos and messages that build a sense of efficacy, whilst applying other best practices in climate change communication (e.g. highlighting positive social norms relating to climate action).

Appendix: Methods (abridged)

  • An online survey with qualitative, quantitative, and experimental components was conducted with UK participants, with data collection carried out in March 2019.
  • 1004 participants were recruited with representative quota sampling for age, gender and ethnicity. 986 places were matched on 3 stratification factors (age, sex and ethnicity), and 18 places matched on 2 stratification factors (sex and ethnicity) = 99.6% sample accuracy. One participant was removed due to incomplete data.
  • In order to test how public threat appraisals may differ in relation to different impact types, a selection of four impacts were chosen due to their salience within the UK and due to availability of images: (1) floods, (2) heat stress/heat exhaustion, (3) new and emerging infectious diseases and (4) air quality. All participants viewed text content relating to these four impacts, answering questions about the perceived severity of, and their sense of vulnerability towards, the impact.
  • At the same time, an experimental aspect allowed the style of content to be varied as well. This meant participants were randomly split into groups where the content showed either: (a) people with neutral emotional expressions (b) people displaying clear negative emotion (c) no people or (d) a control condition, where only text relating to the impacts was displayed.
  • In the survey there were 12 impact images (3 per impact type) and four solution images (showing: tree planting, cycling in a city, getting information from a GP and school strike demo). All selected photographs were either taken in the UK, or could reasonably be inferred as being within the UK. Impact images were rounded down from an initial shortlist of 60+  through a process of coding and review.
  • Other survey questions included: willingness to carry out climate relevant actions, text responses towards the imagery and content, a forced choice task (where participants selected one of two random images placed side by side), and a ‘heatmap’ task, which required participants to click on the most attention-grabbing part of an image.
  • Toward the end of the survey, participants also reviewed impact and solution imagery (four images for each, presented on separate pages) and answered questions about the images’ effectiveness at generating a sense of self-efficacy.

Contact details and further information

Climate Visuals is the world’s only evidence-based climate change photography programme. Drawing on international social research and a broad network of partners across the campaigning, photographic and media space, Climate Visuals is establishing a new best practice, centred around 7 core principles, to empower climate change visual communication and maximise engagement with the issue.

Further details of the survey design and analysis will become available as part of a more detailed forthcoming write up, and will also form part of the lead author’s PhD thesis. For further information about this study contact Niall McLoughlin – Associate, Climate Outreach & PhD Researcher, Department of Psychology, University of Bath: Niall’s PhD was funded through an ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) ‘Environment, Energy and Resilience’ pathway PhD scholarship, under the supervision of Dr Ian Walker (Psychology, University of Bath) and A/Prof Saffron O’Neill (Geography, University of Exeter).

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