What Should Climate Change
Climate Outreach was founded in 2004 to increase public understanding of climate change.
Adam Corner is the Research Director and in 2015 established the Climate Visuals project, a ‘evidence-based resource for visual climate change communication’. Paul Lowe spoke to him about the challenges of picturing climate change.
PL: Despite all these huge protests we are still not making any dramatic progress towards the environmental changes that we would need. What role do you think visuals have played in either helping that discourse or holding it back? AC: Historically they have helped to build up a sense of what this story means and looks like and allowed people to see themselves in it. We are in an incredible moment, in terms of the dynamism of climate politics and the presence all around us of climate change. This is the most coverage that we’ve ever had at this point, the biggest demonstrations that we have ever had – more than four million people – but it may not stay that way. Scientific reports keep coming, keep getting worse, we keep hearing and seeing the effects of climate change with us. So I think the question of how we visualise climate change is also moving quickly and I’m seeing a greater range of human stories that locate climate change in a recognisable place to the viewer. It’s only very recently that’s starting to shift a little bit. If you image search ‘climate change’ in any of the big image libraries what you find is melting ice, not too many people, maybe some protesters but they are generally there as the kind of hippies that protest on this. Another example that’s really unhelpful is the European heatwave that we had in the summer. The headlines were saying all sorts of terrifying things but the images were of fountains in the city, people bunking off work to go to the beach, people eating ice creams. The climate emergency looks quite enjoyable, which is definitely not the way we want to be visually portraying this issue. I think there is a balance between the apocalyptic headlines and giving people a sense of what they can do about it. That comes from the psychology, the social science research. We are doing a dis-service to communication if we illustrate it with people frolicking in fountains in cities because it doesn’t represent the nature of the the issue at all.
PL: So where do you think that failure lies? Is it in the media not creating a space where these different challenging images can be presented? Is it the agencies, the photographers not making those images in the first place? Why are we not seeing more realistic or more sophisticated images of what the climate change emergency might mean? AC: Yeah, it’s a great question and I think there is a mixture of reasons. There’s loads of photographers that have done loads of great work. It’s not that no one has thought ‘how do you capture climate change in an interesting way?’ I think there are mainstream picture editors and journalists who have done a great job too, but collectively, as an industry, it hasn’t had the nuance that it needs. I think that’s partly down to the challenge that climate