Are Your Visuals Undermining Your Climate Message?

What NOT to use.

What NOT to use.

The power of an image to engage and inspire people is enormous – but if you don’t choose the right visual, you run the risk of alienating rather than appealing to your audience. For example, polar bears were once the poster children for climate change – who doesn’t want to help an adorable polar bear, right? But such imagery has a way of making climate change seem distant and impersonal, rather than something that is affecting people’s daily lives right now.
We’ve found that images that include people and/or ordinary household items are more engaging than photographs of landscapes or buildings. But good judgment is needed here too. As UK-based think tank Climate Outreach points out in their new research report, the image needs to feel authentic in order to resonate – anything that feels staged or posed can cause a negative reaction. Visuals of environmental protests also tested poorly. Even though such images show people who are concerned about climate change and raising their voices (which we in the climate movement see as a good thing), the average American doesn’t identify with those groups, however peaceful their actions or rational their arguments.
Instead, Climate Outreach recommends showing visuals of real people who have been affected by climate impacts such as floods or drought – this helps make an emotional connection with audiences by putting climate change in a personal, relatable context. But it’s important to pair those visuals with messages about solutions, to keep the audience from feeling overwhelmed or powerless.
The report offers a number of other insights about which types of visuals are most effective. Climate Outreach (whose co-founder George Marshall and Executive Director Jamie Clarke are on our MomentUs Research Council) has also put together an interactive library of images that climate communicators can use to strengthen their messages. It’s a perfect accompaniment to our new research report on powerful, engaging climate language, Let’s Talk Climate: Messages to Motivate Americans.

Beyond Polar Bears: Why Climate Images Matter

By Robin Webster, contributor to Climate Home
The iconography of global warming is stuck in a rut. New research can help get the climate story across visually
According to the old saying, a picture is worth a 1,000 words. If that’s true, then ranks of chimneys, melting glaciers, flooded towns, wind turbines, solar panels and polar bears are a big part of the climate change story we’re telling ourselves. All without knowing what they mean to the people that view them.
Back in the 1980s, green activists created the idea of associating climate change with images of polar bears. It was a clever move; research shows that we’re more likely to respond to pictures of one or two affected individuals in trouble than a crowd – the so-called ‘identifiable victim’ effect – and polar bears tend to be photographed singly or in pairs. We instinctively respond to their plight on the melting ice.
But a few decades later, the polar bear picture is a cliche, and the iconography of climate change feels stuck. Day by day journalists, activists, bloggers and educators face the problem of how to communicate climate change visually, with little practical help available. The difficulty of the choice reflect the tensions in climate change communication as a whole – an issue many perceive as intangible and abstract, simultaneously frightening and far away.
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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Arturo de Frias Marques

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