Visual communication: the role of effective imagery in public engagement with climate change

Does climate change have an ‘image problem’?

Images are a key part of climate change communication but, while there is a wealth of research on language, images are overlooked and understudied. As a result, climate change has something of an ‘image problem’; it is characterised by a restricted set of visual associations in the public mind. Research shows that the images people associate with climate change tend to be abstract and psychologically distant, devoid of specific geographic, social or temporal details, and typically do not feature people.

Images are important because they are representations of the issue in people’s minds – they are what people think of when they think of climate change. Complex concepts like climate change are given power through imagery that creates a common understanding of the images that represent it. Just as journalists and communicators seek to communicate effectively in written stories, we should aim to do the same with visual stories about climate change.

Scientific images

Scientific imagery can be useful and engaging, particularly from the point of view of building curiosity about science and broadening knowledge about climate change. At its core, the basis for concern about climate change is scientific evidence, and images documenting this evidence can be particularly effective when they supplement a wider human story about climate change.

However, communicators should be wary of assuming their audience has scientific knowledge – or interest. When non-experts interpret scientific charts, their understanding does not match well with that of the experts who designed them. Such images rarely emerge from free association (“What image comes to mind when you think of climate change?”, despite being considered distinctive images of climate change. This suggests that scientific charts, however common they are, may not linger in audience imaginations and are not the most powerful visual stories.

Photographic images

In terms of engaging wider audiences, one problematic feature of climate imagery is the absence of human stories: on the whole, it does not show the impact of climate change on ordinary people. Every day, thousands of photographs of climate change are shared. When humans are depicted in these, politicians dominate, followed by public figures such as celebrities, protesters and scientists. Research shows that images of politicians are often disliked, met with scepticism, and can make people feel that climate change is not important and that they themselves can do little about it. Images of stereotypical protesters and publicity stunts can elicit similar responses, and are disliked across the political spectrum. On a wider scale, such figureheads frame climate change as a political and ideological struggle, which can enhance polarisation along political lines and alienate those who do not identify with the groups.

Showing identifiable and ‘real’ people – who are relatable, credible and whose connections with climate change are perceived as authentic – is important for fostering greater engagement across a broader audience. Candid photos of ordinary people dealing with the impacts of climate change elicit stronger reactions than staged photos. If the person depicted makes direct eye contact with the camera, it can be a powerful way to connect to the audience.

In order to build public engagement, climate change communication must shift the issue from one focussed on science and politics, to one centred around people – and the presence of human stories in photographic portrayals of climate change is a crucial part of this.

Impacts vs solutions

Of all the types of images being used in climate communication, the most frequently seen are those that depict the impacts of climate change (e.g. extreme weather, melting ice, large-scale flooding, drought and, of course, polar bears). Public-perception research has shown that seeing the impacts of climate change can lead people to think that climate change is an important issue, but possibly at the expense of feelings of self-efficacy (the belief that they can do something about it.) When climate impacts appear overwhelming, they can lead to unhelpful emotional responses such as fear, hopelessness, and apathy.

One way around this may be to pair images of climate impacts with images of climate ‘solutions’ (e.g. mitigation and adaptation measures). Knowledge of climate solutions has been found to increase feelings of efficacy, and elicit positive emotions such as enthusiasm and excitement. Some studies have found that solutions are linked a lower sense of urgency to act, but researchers are still investigating this. Pairing emotionally evocative impact images with corresponding solutions might allow audiences to balance their negative emotions, and even channel them towards feasible and accessible behaviours.

Another approach is to show local (but serious) impacts of climate change. Research has shown that such images are not only relatable but also help viewers retain a sense of the importance of the issue. The key is to balance the relevance of the image to the audience without trivialising the greater problem of global climate change.

Avoid clichés and tell new stories

Climate communicators are divided about what has become perhaps the most iconic of all climate imagesphotographs of polar bears. While there is nothing wrong with the image of a polar bear, the continued reliance on a visual cliché is problematic when engaging audiences who are not already concerned about climate change. Clichéd images do not encourage curiosity or reflection, and continue to strengthen the impression that climate change is a distant problem. In addition, image research shows that photographs people found less familiar, but which presented new perspectives on climate change, were seen as more engaging and thought-provoking.

As with all areas of communication, the fundamental issue is to understand the audience – for communicators who want to reach people who don’t care about climate change, knowing that we are not our audience is crucial. Reactions to any image of climate change will differ according to one’s level of knowledge, concern, and political affiliation as well as one’s identity and values.

Burning Questions

How are images of climate change communicated and perceived in different countries and cultures? Do the conclusions about climate imagery produced in US/UK/Europe (as most are) apply to non-Western contexts?

In the same way that research seeks to understand the language that can most effectively engage across the political spectrum, is there an ‘iconography’ for engaging hard-to-reach audiences, such as conservatives on climate change?

By Adam Corner

Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.

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