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The shared imagery of climate change: Social media and climate visuals

May 5 2017

Susie Wang

Children in Lao carry water

A group of children walking to a nearby river to get water. Our research suggests that showing the impacts of climate change on children can provoke strong emotions. This photo shows small children walking to a nearby river to get water in Lao PDR. View this image in our gallery

In the social media world, images have an important role in shaping public opinion. Thousands of images about climate change are being shared each day, accelerated by the rapidly changing digital landscape. In digital media, images are not just supplementary to text: they are at the centre of social interactions, whether it be on image-centric Facebook and Instagram, or on Twitter, where verbal brevity is enforced with a character limit. In this new world, a single image can have a global impact, in a very short space of time.

Currently, a narrow set of images is used to picture climate change in the public sphere: polar bears, melting ice-caps, smokestacks. A limited visual language is problematic because it does not capture the magnitude and seriousness of climate change, and may not reach beyond those who are already engaged.

Heaps of old tyres showing scale of waste

People from both sides of the political spectrum dislike waste. This striking photo illustrates the scale of industrial waste we produce, and also its consequences for climate change: the 4–6 million tyres in this dump will be burned for electricity, a practice that has been shown to produce toxic and carcinogenic fumes. View this image in our gallery

To create change, we need to communicate new stories about climate change and choose images that build on the values, cares, and identities of our audiences. It is important to understand which kinds of images are likely to be shared with others, which images evoke emotions such as hope, anger, and fear, which images mobilise people, and which images resonate with particular audiences.

The Climate Visuals project is bringing about this new way of visualising climate change. We have conducted research on how different people respond to images of climate change, and from this, we have created resources and a gallery of nearly 400 images that tell a more compelling climate story. Our research is crucial in shaping a new visual language for climate change, and we are working with major communicators: photo-agencies, photographers and media outlets to do so.

However, despite the nonstop flurry of images being created, exchanged, and shared, little is known about how climate change is visualised on social media. Not only is social media an increasingly popular way to access news, including environmental news, it has elevated the role of the individual user as a new and prominent actor in climate change communication.

One of the by-products of mass social media is a democratisation of influence online, where the visibility and influence of a single individual can be amplified. A social network map of the climate conversation on Twitter shows that many individuals have a role as central to the discussion as multinational organisations.

Flooding in Queensland, Australia with home address sign

This photo adds a twist to typical images of flooding, inviting viewers to place themselves in the situation, and hints at the consequences of delaying action on climate change. Flooding in Queensland, Australia. Original image and licensing information

More and more, the individual is becoming the producer as well as the consumer of climate change imagery. Recent high-profile campaigns around climate imagery have tapped into these shifts, complete with hashtags. National Geographic’s #myclimateaction, and the UNFCCC’s #art4climate and #photo4climate contests all encourage individuals to submit their own climate visuals.

With projects like Making Climate Social, we can begin to understand the use of climate images on social media: who shares images, the kinds of images shared, and in what contexts. Key to a greater understanding is knowing which actors shape climate change imagery, and how they choose to do so. Equally important are the audiences who consume images of climate change. According to research, around 40% of users on Twitter are listeners. These silent participators are an unknown, yet necessary part of the climate change discussion.

Each time an image is used to portray environmental issues, it can reinforce the same old stereotypes, or it can captivate and inspire. With social media, the influence of a single image, and a single person can be amplified like never before. It is more important than ever to understand how images of climate change are being used digitally, and to make sure they effectively communicate the depth and magnitude of climate change, in a way that reaches beyond the green bubble.

Newly weds Aljim and Jenny display their ring during wedding rites in front of a church at a village that was devastated by rampaging flood waters in the Philippines.

Participants in our discussion groups were sensitive towards (and broadly supportive of) attempts to use subversion or humour in climate imagery. Newly weds Aljim and Jenny display their ring during wedding rites in front of a church at a village that was devastated by rampaging flood waters in the Philippine. View this image in our gallery