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In the aftermath of the 2017 storms, it’s time for a new visual language for climate change

September 13 2017

Adam Corner

London event highlights importance of human-centred climate imagery

As biblical Monsoon rains battered India, and the North American continent took the first in a series of brutal hurricane hits (while forest fires burnt ominously elsewhere in the US), Climate Outreach convened the first in an international series of Climate Visuals Masterclasses in London, with the aim of catalysing a new visual language for climate change.

The storms poignantly underscored the urgency of shifting the visual discourse on climate change so that it connects with people’s everyday concerns, and shows how climate change is impacting communities here and now.

Climate Visuals principle 5: Show local (but serious) climate impacts.

Climate Visuals principle 5: Show local (but serious) climate impacts.

For too long, climate change has been portrayed as something that happens to ‘other people’  in far away places (melting glaciers or drought-ridden, desertified plains), or in the case of the ubiquitous polar bear: other species.  But as the destructive weather and the striking images narrating the story of the storms as they ravaged some of the world’s most populous urban centres showed all too clearly, climate change has already arrived for many millions of people spanning every class and continent.

Hosted by our partners, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the day brought campaigners, communicators, researchers, photographers, film-makers and multimedia journalists together, to learn about the seven Climate Visuals principles, hear from a range of guest speakers, and talk about what it would take to catalyse a new visual language for climate change.

Unsurprisingly, the topic of the week’s extreme weather, and how to help protect other communities by telling powerful visual stories about the destruction that storms in a warmer world can bring, was an early discussion point.

In the international social research that underpins the Climate Visuals project we found that people were emotionally affected by images of climate impacts, but also tended to feel powerless in the face of what they saw. The devastating pictures of people’s flattened homes and flooded apartments from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, such as the ones below, are likely to grab people’s attention.

Two tweets showing good climate change imagery from the flooding after the 2017 storm

View in Twitter (left); View in Twitter (right)

However, our research suggests that’s only half the story. To harness the emotion people feel when they see an image of hurricane damage, communicators also need to convey practical climate solutions - perhaps focusing on communities adapting to floods and sea level rise. Otherwise, the risk is that people may recoil away from the image, and won’t engage with the crucial question of how to prevent worse damage from happening in the future.

That’s why a more human-centred visual language for climate change is so important - without it, we can’t hope to muster and maintain the social, political and cultural momentum we need to face down the worst climate risks and build a more resilient society.

This was a theme that our guests at the Masterclass - including Thomson Reuters Foundation Climate Change Editor, Laurie Goering  -  returned to throughout the day. Encouragingly, Goering described the success she and her team have had within Thomson Reuters, with more human-centred and less-cliched climate imagery. Stories and images portraying communities developing ingenious responses to climate change (such as the solar donkeys shown below) tend to outperform tales of doom and gloom.   

Women trained as solar installers carry their wares on donkeys

Image credit and licensing information: TRF/Leopold Obi

Of course, there’s no point in painting an unrealistically positive picture either - and Climate Photographer Robert van Waarden showcased his ‘Along the Pipeline’ project, showing how fossil fuel infrastructure dissects the lives and loves of so many people in the path of Canada’s tar sands pipeline.

Ordinary, everyday human stories were again at the heart of van Waarden’s approach though, showing that opposing fossil fuels is not something that only costumed protesters do on organised demos. One of the most striking findings in our Climate Visuals research was the antipathy people felt towards images of ‘typical environmentalists’, suggesting we need to widen the scope of who ‘speaks for the climate’ in our images of low-carbon advocacy.

Climate Visuals principle 6: Be very careful with protest imagery.

Climate Visuals principle 6: Be very careful with protest imagery.

None of this is to say that campaigners have done anything wrong - but as the need to connect beyond the usual suspects on climate change becomes more urgent by the day, and climate impacts creep into communities that haven’t joined the dots on climate change, the images we use to tell the climate story need to tell people unequivocally ‘this story is about you’.

If our Climate Visuals programme can achieve that goal - shifting the visual language of climate change away from the remote, the pristine and the abstract, and towards the multitude of powerful human stories that comprise our societal response to climate change - we’ll have achieved something good.

And if it seems impossible, just look at how images of women have changed in 10 years in global photographic agency Getty Images.

It’s time to do the same for climate change: from polar bears to the human story of fighting, surviving and ultimately thriving in a rapidly changing climate.