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Ban polar bears! Climate visuals that work

  • 18 September 2019


Climate change, wrote Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly, is the 'most beautiful apocalypse' you could imagine. Last month he looked at pictures of the melting Artic — the majesty of drifting icebergs, the fluorescent blue of a cracking glacier — and argued it was all too pretty to feel much concern. Our society's increasingly visual culture, he reasoned, makes it hard for us to come to grips with an abstract, long-term problem like climate change.

Nonsense. The issue isn't using pictures to communicate climate change, it's using the wrong ones. There are compelling images to convey the urgency of this crisis, and there's even peer-reviewed research showing that people find them convincing and emotionally engaging. Unfortunately most media outlets don't know this research and run the same old stock photos with every story.

The visual language of climate change has become predictable and stunted. In the 1980s activists used an image of a polar bear adrift on a floe of ice to tell the story of global warming and rising sea levels, and the cliché has stuck. It's become visual shorthand for the topic — useful for quick categorisation, but stale and easily dismissed.

The other two most common images used in climate change stories are pictures of politicians and protestors. This is a byproduct of reporting on UN climate conferences, when media coverage of the topic spikes. Photojournalists take pictures of politicians inside and protesters (usually white Westerners) outside, highlighting any conflict.

Research conducted in 2015 by UK charity Climate Outreach suggests these three common images — polar bears, politicians and protesters — are probably the worst pictures to communicate climate change.

Through discussion groups and a survey of 3000 people across Europe, they discovered that pictures of politicians were universally disliked, and had the lowest ranking in terms of motivating people to change their behaviour. Excluding politicians, the second lowest-scoring image was a protestor wearing blue face paint and holding a sign reading 'climate justice now'. Not even people concerned about climate change were favourable to this photo. It only appealed to people who already saw themselves as activists.

But this is how the media often portrays the issue: as a 'contested' frame. It's either a fight between two sides of politics, or between radical activists and politicians. Another study found Australian media is even more likely to use images of politicians in climate change stories than other countries.


"The combination of inner city protest imagery