Every day, thousands of images of climate change are shared around the world. But while research on the verbal and written communication of climate change has proliferated, our understanding of how people interpret visual images of climate change is limited to a much smaller number of academic studies, which do not provide much in the way of practical guidance for communicators. As a result, the iconography of climate change has remained relatively static.
This report*, produced by Climate Outreach, Global Call for Climate Action and UMass Amherst, summarises the research underpinning the Climate Visuals website (climatevisuals.org) and presents the key findings so that practitioners can take an evidence-based approach to visual communication. The imagery used to communicate climate change can and should be more diverse than polar bears and melting ice. Climate Visuals takes the first steps towards helping communicators tell a better visual story about climate change.
*download the full report from the right hand column or via the links under further resources.
Methods and Tools (overview)
The research combined two different methods. Four structured discussion groups (with a total of 32 citizens) were held: two in London and two in Berlin. Participants responded to dozens of climate images, engaging in detailed discussions about what they saw. Following this in-depth research, an international online survey of 3,014 people was conducted, with participants split equally between the UK, Germany and the US. The survey allowed us to test a smaller number of images with a much larger number of people.
Following directly from the study's key findings, summarized below, the climatevisuals.org website is organised and structured to be as useful as possible for communicators. There are four galleries (Climate Causes, Climate Impacts, Climate Solutions and New Stories), containing several hundred images which correspond to and illustrate the key findings from the research – the only evidence-based library of climate photography in existence. Every one of the images featured in the image bank is clearly labelled, categorised and captioned for ease of use.
Key Research Findings
Below are the key messages from the report. For more detail on each key message and the research behind them, see the full report (download from right-hand coloumn or via links under further resources).
1. Show ‘real people’ not staged photo-ops: A person expressing an identifiable emotion is powerful. But our discussion groups favoured ‘authentic’ images over staged photographs, which they saw as gimmicky or even manipulative. Politicians – notoriously low on credibility and authenticity – attracted some of the lowest scores (in all three nations) in our survey.
2. Tell new stories: Images that participants could quickly and easily understand – such as smokestacks, deforestation, and polar bears on melting ice – tended to be positively rated in our online survey (which captured rapid responses to images, rather than deeper debate). Familiar, ‘classic’ images may be especially useful for audiences with limited knowledge or interest in climate change, but they also prompted cynicism and fatigue in our discussion groups. They are effective ways of communicating to an audience that ‘this story is about climate change’. But is it a story they want to hear? Less familiar (and more thought-provoking) images can help tell a new story about climate change, and remake the visual representation of climate change in the public mind.
3. Show climate causes at scale: We found that people do not necessarily understand the links between climate change and their daily lives. Individual ‘causes’ of climate change (such as meat-eating) may not be recognised as such, and if they are, may provoke defensive reactions. If communicating the links between ‘problematic’ behaviours and climate change, it is best to show these behaviours at scale – e.g. a congested highway, rather than a single driver.
4. Climate impacts are emotionally powerful: Survey participants in all three nations were moved more by climate impacts – e.g. floods, and the destruction wrought by extreme weather – than by ‘causes’ or ‘solutions’. Images of climate impacts can prompt a desire to respond, but because they are emotionally powerful, they can also be overwhelming. Coupling images of climate impacts with a concrete behavioural ‘action’ for people to take can help overcome this.
5. Show local (but serious) climate impacts: When images of localised climate impacts show an individual person or group of people, with identifiable emotions, they are likely to be most powerful. But there is a balance to be struck (as in verbal and written communication) between localising climate change (so that people realise the issue is relevant to them) and trivialising the issue (by not making clear enough links to the bigger picture).
6. Be very careful with protest imagery: Images depicting protests (or protesters) attracted widespread cynicism and some of the lowest ratings in our survey. In our discussion groups, images of (what people described as) ‘typical environmentalists’ only really resonated with the small number of people who already considered themselves as activists and campaigners. Most people do not feel an affinity with climate change protesters, so images of protests may reinforce the idea that climate change is for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. Protest images involving people directly affected by climate impacts were seen as more authentic and therefore more compelling.
7. Understand your audience: Unsurprisingly, levels of concern/scepticism about climate change determined how people reacted to the images we tested. But other differences emerged too – images of ‘distant’ climate impacts produced much flatter emotional responses among those on the political right. Images depicting ‘solutions’ to climate change generated mostly positive emotions – for those on the political right, as well as those on the left.