Humans are visual animals: our understanding of the world is dominated by what we see, and how this makes us feel. But despite decades of public engagement (and the proliferation of research on the verbal and written communication of climate change), for a long time there was little evidence on which to base a choice that thousands of journalists, activists, bloggers and educators face on a daily basis: how to communicate climate change effectively using the visual medium.
Our visuals and media programme is the world’s only evidence-backed initiative focussing on climate change photography. Fusing international social research, expertise and industry insights, we are working with partners across the world to move away from clichéd images of polar bears, melting ice caps and factories, to catalyse a new – more compelling, diverse and impactful – visual language for climate change.
Key insights from our work: our 7 Climate Visuals principles
Show ‘real people’ not staged photo-ops. A person expressing an identifiable emotion is powerful. Our research showed that people prefer ‘authentic’ images over staged photographs, which they saw as gimmicky or even manipulative.
Barry Aliman, 24 years old, bicycles with her baby to fetch water for her family, Sorobouly village near Boromo, Burkina Faso.
Tell new stories. Less familiar images can help tell a new story about climate change, and remake the visual representation of climate change in the public mind.
Birmingham Cycle Revolution Wheels for All Well Being Centre
Show climate causes at scale. When communicating the links between high carbon behaviours and climate change, it is best to show these behaviours at scale in order to avoid defensive reactions.
Long lines of stationary traffic on the M5 motorway in Somerset, UK
Climate impacts are emotionally powerful. They can prompt a desire to respond or get involved, but can also be overwhelming. Coupling images of climate impacts with a positive or solution narrative can help people take action.
A Mongolian mother holds her baby who is suffering from a respiratory illness, in a city where families burn raw coal to keep warm
Purchasing a portable solar equipment
Understand your audience. Levels of concern about climate change determine how people react to images. Our research showed that images depicting solutions to climate change generated positive emotions across the political spectrum, whereas images of distant climate impacts did not test as well with people with centre-right values.
Not many people identify with ‘typical environmentalists’, but an image of ‘petrol-heads’ admiring a recognised status symbol is likely to resonate more widely..
Show local (but serious) climate impacts. Images of climate impacts in places people are familiar with are likely to be most powerful. However, there is a balance between localising climate change and trivialising the issue, if the impact is seen as not serious.
MTA New York City Transit battled the blizzard as crews cleared snow along the Q line in Brooklyn on Saturday, January 23, 2016.
Be careful with protest imagery. Images depicting protests can attract cynicism as many people do not feel an affinity with protesters. However, images involving protestors directly affected by climate impacts are seen as authentic and compelling.
Youth with Extinction Rebellion SF Bay lead powerful rally, march and direct action