Climate Visuals practice and image library is based on international social research and evidence to catalyse imagery that is not just illustrative but truly impactful.
Our founding research
The first Climate Visuals report 'Climate Visuals: Seven principles for visual climate change communication (based on international social research)' summarises research with members of the public in three nations.
The research combined two different methods. Four structured discussion groups (with a total of 32 citizens) were held: two in London, and two in Berlin. Participants responded to dozens of climate images, engaging in detailed discussions about what they saw. Following this in-depth research, an international online survey of over 3,000 people was conducted, with participants split equally between the UK, Germany and the US. The survey allowed us to test a smaller number of images with a much larger number of people. Full details of our the methodology can be found on our Climate Outreach programme page.
The Seven Climate Visuals principles
1 Show ‘real people’ not staged photo-ops
A person expressing an identifiable emotion is powerful. But our discussion groups favoured ‘authentic’ images over staged photographs, which they saw as gimmicky or even manipulative. Politicians – notoriously low on credibility and authenticity – attracted some of the lowest scores (in all three nations) in our survey.
2 Tell new stories
Images that participants could quickly and easily understand – such as smokestacks, deforestation, and polar bears on melting ice – tended to be positively rated in our online survey (which captured rapid responses to images, rather than deeper debate). Familiar, ‘classic’ images may be especially useful for audiences with limited knowledge or interest in climate change, but they also prompted cynicism and fatigue in our discussion groups. They are effective ways of communicating to an audience that ‘this story is about climate change’. But is it a story they want to hear? Less familiar (and more thought-provoking) images can help tell a new story about climate change, and remake the visual representation of climate change in the public mind.
3 Show climate causes at scale
We found that people do not necessarily understand the links between climate change and their daily lives. Individual ‘causes’ of climate change (such as meat-eating) may not be recognised as such, and if they are, may provoke defensive reactions. If communicating the links between ‘problematic’ behaviours and climate change, it is best to show these behaviours at scale – e.g. a congested highway, rather than a single driver.
4 Climate impacts are emotionally powerful
Survey participants in all three nations were moved more by climate impacts – e.g. floods, and the destruction wrought by extreme weather – than by ‘causes’ or ‘solutions’. Images of climate impacts can prompt a desire to respond, but because they are emotionally powerful, they can also be overwhelming. Coupling images of climate impacts with a concrete behavioural ‘action’ for people to take can help overcome this.
5 Understand your audience
Unsurprisingly, levels of concern/scepticism about climate change determined how people reacted to the images we tested. But other differences emerged too – images of ‘distant’ climate impacts produced much flatter emotional responses among those on the political right. Images depicting ‘solutions’ to climate change generated mostly positive emotions – for those on the political right, as well as those on the left.
6 Show local (but serious) climate impacts
When images of localised climate impacts show an individual person or group of people, with identifiable emotions, they are likely to be most powerful. But there is a balance to be struck (as in verbal and written communication) between localising climate change (so that people realise the issue is relevant to them) and trivialising the issue (by not making clear enough links to the bigger picture).
7 Be very careful with protest imagery
Images depicting protests (or protesters) attracted widespread cynicism and some of the lowest ratings in our survey. In our discussion groups, images of (what people described as) ‘typical environmentalists’ only really resonated with the small number of people who already considered themselves as activists and campaigners. Most people do not feel an affinity with climate change protesters, so images of protests may reinforce the idea that climate change is for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. Protest images involving people directly affected by climate impacts were seen as more authentic and therefore more compelling
Additional Climate Visual Co-Authored Papers
We have also co-authored two academic articles related to the Climate Visuals project:
Chapman, A., Corner, A., Webster, R. and Markowitz E. (2016): Climate visuals: A mixed methods investigation of public perceptions of climate images in three countries, Global Environmental Change. 41, pp.172-182
Wang, S., Corner, A., Chapman, A., Markowitz, E. (2018): Public engagement with climate imagery in a changing digital landscape, Wires Climate Change
Visualising Climate Change 2020 Hackathon
In January 2020, Climate Visuals and Saffron O’Neill, Associate Professor in Geography at Exeter University, organised the ‘Visualising Climate Change 2020 Hackathon’ to critically update and expand the evidence base for how to effectively communicate climate change through imagery.
Over a dozen academics, all specialising in climate change imagery, as well as industry professionals from both Getty Images and the World Press Photo Foundation were convened. The original 7 Climate Visuals principles were critically tested and scrutinised but reassuringly, came away unscathed as an accessible and robust guide to editing and commissioning Climate imagery for 2020.
Guidelines for imagery around forests, land use and indigenous rights in Central and South America
In December 2020, Climate Visuals began gathering evidence and conducting interviews to ascertain how our 7 Climate Visuals principles can be applied and extended to include ethical and values-based guidelines around imagery concerning forests, land use and indigenous rights – all as climate solutions.
This work focuses on stakeholders across Central, South America and the Amazon, with the research and interventions being funded by the Climate and Land Use Alliance and guided by sector advice from If Not Us Then Who. The ultimate purpose of this project is to better connect global media and communications professionals with the most appropriate and impactful content.
Addressing the lack of diversity in images showing how we can all enjoy England’s natural environment
Closer to home, Climate Visuals is working with Natural England to address the critical gap in the diversity and breadth of the visual language surrounding English nature.
The ambition is to create new public-facing guidelines around communication of the natural environment and climate change so it can be more beneficial, meaningful and impactful. Our report will inform new photographic practice to engage and inspire true diversity in who, where and how we can all enjoy England’s natural environment.
The air that we breathe:
We conducted new survey research - the first of its kind - to reveal how the UK public engages with imagery communicating the health impacts of climate change (and the health benefits of low carbon measures). We found that images showing air pollution (compared to images of floods, heat stress, and infectious disease) were found to be more effective for visually communicating the health impacts of climate change: the health consequences of climate impacts other than air pollution are not yet visually salient in the public mind. Visual communication on the health impacts of climate change should therefore build on the salience of air pollution as an issue with links to climate change to create a visual narrative of climate impacts that is people-focused and relatable and which introduces the link between health and other climate impacts. Combine these health-impact images with solutions-focused photos that build a sense of ‘efficacy’, and highlight positive social norms (around people taking relevant climate actions). This research was conducted pre-Covid and that subsequently the wearing of a personal mask now no longer simply signifies air pollution.
COP 21 and COP 22 UN climate conferences
The second and third Climate Visuals reports contain an analysis of the key visual themes from the landmark UN climate conference in 2015 in Paris (COP21), and a comparison with the visual language of the following conference in Marrakech (COP22). Both reports provide concrete, tangible and practical suggestions for telling more compelling visual stories on climate change at the UN climate conferences and beyond.
Getty Images partners with Climate Visuals to launch new guidelines
Getty Images has partnered with the Climate Visuals programme to launch guidelines helping brands and businesses use visuals which incite change. The guidelines are linked to curated imagery of example content and give brands and businesses practical recommendations on how to find and use fresh and relevant visual content to communicate their commitment to sustainability and inspire their audiences to action.