Ban polar bears! Climate visuals that work



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.

For Australian audience, local climate impacts are more relevant than images of the melting Arctic. Including real people in the photo gives a powerful human perspective. Source: Bushfire in Cessnock by Flickr User Quarrie PhotographyNonsense. 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 and stories of the melting Arctic/burning Amazon is a recipe for alienating many mainstream suburban voters."


Because Australia is on the opposite side of the world to the Arctic, pictures of polar bears are especially unhelpful here. The climate visuals research found these images of distant impacts might trigger a 'global justice' frame that appeals to people on the left of the political spectrum, but alienates those on the right. Images of local impacts have greater appeal across the political divide, as do images of real people.

The research also warns against using pictures of devasting global impacts — like houses flattened by hurricanes or swathes of the Amazon on fire — without a clear link to what action people can take. In discussion groups, these kinds of pictures prompted the response: yeah, but what can I do about it? Yet these kinds of images and stories dominate climate change coverage — just look at pictures of the burning Amazon as a recent example. Without any link to a tangible action people can take, these articles risk instilling a sense of hopelessness.

All of this is a warning against the media coverage Extinction Rebellion could generate in coming months. The combination of inner city protest imagery and stories of the melting Arctic/burning Amazon is a recipe for alienating many mainstream suburban voters. (Extinction Rebellion's political theory of change isn't aiming at these people, but environmental protests have been most effective when the broader public identifies with those getting arrested, and so the media portrayal matters.)

To build a broader base, climate images need to be local and relevant to diverse audiences (not just those already concerned). They should tell new stories about climate change, show real people not staged protests, and connect with viewers on an emotional level. Distressing pictures of climate impacts should be balanced by images of solutions or actions people can take that are commensurate with the scale of the problem.

A good example for Australia would be volunteer firefighters battling a blaze (see above), country communities installing renewable energy and photos of local impacts like drought or reef bleaching. Protest images should subvert the stereotype in some way — people in business suits, mums with prams, non-Caucasian faces, or conservative figures like farmers and war veterans.

The day of Aly's article, I wrote a short letter to the Age explaining the above and giving them a link to hundreds of free images that are more likely to increase concern about the climate crisis and motivate action, including many from Australia. You can see them for yourself at

The next morning I flicked to the letters page and saw they'd published a large picture of a polar bear.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears. Main image: For Australian audience, local climate impacts are more relevant than images of the melting Arctic. Including real people in the photo gives a powerful human perspective. Source: Bushfire in Cessnock by Flickr User Quarrie Photography.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, Covering Climate Now



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Well said Greg Foyster. Visuals do not always give the message intended. In our village stand two icons. One is an ancient machine gun, mounted outside the RSL, commemorating those who fought for peace and freedom. The gun is heavily guarded by fencing (because years ago someone tipped it on its side, thus attracting angry accusations about desecration). Unfortunately, as you enter the short main street of the village, the gun points straight at you. "Beware," it says, "I could kill you!" The other icon is a large, fibreglass yellow polar bear, standing outside the library, meant to make us ponder species extinction, but, like its older cousin the machine gun, has lately attracted the night-time attention of alcohol-fuelled bravados competing to see who can lift and tip a cemented-down fibreglass polar bear. So far they have achieved the occasional off-balance look, followed the next day by plastic traffic hats and plastic danger tape. I am not sure that any of this has lead, in the first case, to more peace in our neighbourhood, and in the second, to any increase in awareness of the effects of the climate emergency on our local Koalas, Eastern Spinebills and native orchids.
Janet | 19 September 2019

Our local council put a life-size fibreglass sculpture of a polar bear outside Our Library. “They” reckon it’s a Tourist Attraction. “They” reckon people will travel to our village in petrol guzzling cars to see the polar bear, consume coffee and cake, and use the flushers. Meanwhile Our Library is in the process of being extinguished. “They” are transmogrifying our Book Place into a Cultural Hub - art, line-dancing, coffee drinking, that sort of thing. You are right, an image of a polar bear no longer speaks Climate Change. Or Extinction. What sort of image would speak to locals about Climate Change? Dunno. Clearly, Climate Change is the least of concerns on our coalfields. Fires? Here, Hunter Valley coalfields, we’re used to bushfires, and those naughty kiddies that ignite them “just for fun.” Traditional summer past-time. Maybe an image of a petrol bowser, “threatened “ by bushfire, with the price clicking ever-upwards. Of course, it’s the price-rises that would inflame local passions. Not the fires. Most miners need their dual-cab turbo-diesel four-wheel-drives to get to work, then to the pub. Well, there’s another image - empty beer barrels midst raging bushfires. That’s Hell on Earth.
Dale Fox | 19 September 2019

You are right, Greg, with your point that climate change alarmism (global and local) is a'turn off' for many people. Reasoned argument would be better received and that means listening to geologists and Meteorologist arguments that global warming/climate change is largely caused by natural factors, not humans, and that we must adapt and not think we can change climate.
Gerard Tonks | 19 September 2019


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