Why We Need To Change The Way We Visually Convey Climate Change

Starving polar bears, smoking power plants, and melting glaciers simply don’t portray the real human impacts of climate change

Tabitha Whiting
Jun 19 · 5 min read
A tourist beach in Aruba with oil refineries in the background. Credit: Spencer Thomas / Climate Visuals.

“Polar bears, melting ice and arrays of smoke stacks don’t convey the urgent stories at the heart of the issue.”

The classic photo options to accompany an article about global warming or climate change are:

  • Sad polar bears
  • Power plants emitting smoke
  • Solar panels, or wind turbines
  • Arid landscapes, melting glaciers, or flooding.

Don’t worry, I do realise how ironic it is for me to write this, given that with a quick glance through my own Medium profile you’ll find articles on climate change featuring images of all of the above. In my defence, though, it’s pretty hard to find photos of climate change which move beyond these depictions to a more nuanced understanding of climate change. That was, until I came across the Climate Visuals website.

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Climate Visuals is a project launched in 2016 by Oxford climate change charity, Climate Outreach. They want to help develop a ‘more compelling and diverse visual language’ when it comes to reporting on global warming and climate change. And they aren’t just making it up, their bank of images is focused around seven core principles of visual climate change communication, which they’ve developed through their own research projects and focus groups.

These seven principles are:

  1. Real people: photos should show real people, not staged or stock photos.
  2. New stories: although their research found that people quickly understood traditional photos to be depicting climate change (polar bears, deforestation, smoking chimneys), they also found the dominant reaction to them to be cynicism.
  3. Show scale: instead of focusing on individual negative behaviours (a person eating meat or driving to work) focus on these issues at scale to avoid defensive reactions — a congested motorway, for instance.
  4. Demonstrate the impacts: the research found that the impacts of climate change were emotionally powerful and brought a desire to respond.
  5. Show local impacts: impacts are particularly powerful when they are localised, depicting an individual or group of people, so that people see the issue as relevant to them.
  6. Limit protests: imagery of climate protests had strong reactions of cynicism, as people could’t relate to these climate activists. It gave the idea of ‘them’ vs ‘us, rather than climate change as an issue for all of us.
  7. Understand the audience: the trends they found were not universally applicable, and different types of photos affected different groups of people differently. For instance, images of climate impact focused on faraway locations had less reaction from those on the political right.

All of these principles are focused around how we can illicit an emotional response in a viewer. I’m a firm believer that the best way to communicate is through stories. Stories are how we understand life, and how we relate to one another. They are also, therefore, what will motivate us to react and to do something about climate change as a society. It’s all very well telling these stories in words, but we need to show them in photos too.

That’s why I think the Climate Visuals project is so brilliant. Those existing visual narratives of climate change leave people completely out of the picture (pun very much intended). There isn’t a single photo within the Climate Visuals bank which doesn’t have at least one human being on it. They each tell a clear, unique story, and they’re accompanied by a short summary which illuminates that story further.

This one, for instance, depicts a worker cleaning one of 300,000 solar panels at the Ivanpah Solar Project. It fits the second principle perfectly, that of telling ‘new stories’ about climate change. Photos of solar panel fields are pretty commonly used, but usually they would be an aerial view of the solar panels, with no people involved. This shows a new side, of the workers who are involved in creating and maintaining a project like this one. It offers scale in terms of the literal size of the panels, and in terms of what goes into the running of an operation like this.

Credit: Dennis Schroeder / Climate Visuals

This image, on the other hand, is more focused on the first, fourth, and fifth principles — showing impacts and real people. It shows a child from Tuvalu, an island state located in the Pacific Ocean, holding up a sign asking the world for a place to live, as her home will be lost to sea level rise. She looks direct to camera, her story speaking directly to the viewer, whilst in the background of the image the impacts of flooding in the area are clear to see.

Credit: Unknown / Climate Visuals

Climate change definitely has an image problem (as well as a language problem), and it’s brilliant to see a campaign which is working to fix that, producing usable, evidence-based resources to help us better communicate climate change. If you ever write about climate change, I definitely recommend taking a look at the bank of Creative Commons climate change images — I’ll certainly be using them to accompany my articles from now on.

Tabitha Whiting

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Rambling about climate change, sustainability, and communication🌱