Seeing the invisible – how should we visualise climate change?

Parched and cracked landIf you read my blog post, ‘What’s in a word? How language shapes sustainability’, you may remember me saying that how we conceptualise and think about environmental issues such as climate change, is shaped by how we communicate on the subject. This is not just true of words, but visuals too.

Climate change visuals are a particularly exciting area of research in academia, because we know little about how we interact with such imagery, and few studies have been done. That’s why I did my MA dissertation in this subject area. Studies carried out to date give us interesting guidance on how we should use, or not use, certain images. They have also opened up debate surrounding popular images of climate change. I wanted to share a few insights from visuals research with you, for when you are next choosing your own climate change imagery – they may help you think differently about which visuals you are selecting and why (note that these ideas come mainly from a UK perspective, i.e. that of an industrialized nation):

1. What does climate look like?

We cannot ‘see’ climate change itself. Climate change images might picture the effects or symptoms of climate change, behaviours to mitigate it, and adaptation, but all visual representations of climate change are constructs of one sort or another.

2. We’re not rational

Our thoughts on environmental issues are not processed only rationally, which is why simply providing more information on climate change, on the whole, doesn’t make people respond any differently to it. Instead, emotion plays a large part too, and visuals are especially good at reaching our emotions.

3. Photographic ‘evidence’

Remember that photographic ‘evidence’ of climate change shows the effects of past emissions, not the emissions we are currently producing. Also, there has been some discussion that what is absent from a photo is as important as what is in it (e.g. an image of receding ice doesn’t show how much ice was there previously).

4. Fear appeals

Fear appeals are generally a bad idea – these might be achieved, for example, by using apocalyptic imagery. Unless there is a very clear pathway of action that your audience can take (and this is unlikely to be the case because climate change is complex, as are the reasons people don’t change their behaviour) you are more likely to induce feelings of guilt and helplessness. When people feel uncomfortable in this way, they switch off.

5. Some images are distancing

Images of ice, polar bears, cracked and dry land (such as the one illustrating this post), and starving children can be regarded as both temporally and geographically distant from us, and are therefore disengaging. It may be better to use images of things that are local and personal – things that people can relate to in their own lives.

6. Some images attract attention, some encourage action – rarely does an image do both

A 2013 study showed that imagery either increases the sense of importance of climate change, or the feelings of being about to do something about it, but there are few, if any, images that will fulfil both roles. This backs up previous research which says the same. Therefore it is important to work out what you are trying to achieve from your communication, before deciding which type of image to use.

In the study, images of climate impacts and pollution (such as views of floods, ice sheets, deforestation, polar bears, cracked ground, a coral reef, smokestacks, traffic jams) increased feelings of importance in individuals, whilst images of energy futures and effective lifestyle choices increased people’s feelings that they can do something about climate change (solar panels, electric cars, traffic jams, home insulation, wind farms, a fuel pump, red meat, climate protest and ecohouses).

But finally… consider audience and context

As always though, context is key. An image may work well in one situation, and be completely inappropriate in another, so consider your audience and what you are trying to achieve first.

Have you experienced any issues with choosing and using climate change imagery which you could add to this list? If so, please do contribute to the conversation by adding a comment below.

Further reading

Visual communication of climate change (Talking Climate)

This post was originally published on my previous blog on 7 April 2014.

Janine completed an MA in Professional Communication with distinction, and for her dissertation conducted an academic study into the communication by businesses of climate change through visual imagery. Her work touched on subjects as diverse as language use, behaviour change, psychology and issue framing. If you would like to get in touch directly, email or call 015394 69034 / 07707 038 092.

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One Response to Seeing the invisible – how should we visualise climate change?

  1. Janine
    Janine April 18, 2017 at 4:53 pm #

    The organisation Climate Reach has recently done lots of work on the theory of climate change visuals. Take a look at their new website at:

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