The 7 Climate Visuals principles 1. Show ‘real people’ not staged photo-ops 2. Tell new stories 3. Show climate causes at scale 4. Climate impacts are emotionally powerful 5. Show local (but serious) climate impacts 6. Be very careful with protest imagery 7. Understand your audience
On the Climate Visuals site each picture, alongside the usual caption and credit, includes a brief explanation as to which principle it fulfils and the research findings that supports its use.
Principle: Tell new stories
Underwater Signing This image is justifiably famous among climate campaigners – it playfully but forcefully illustrates the seriousness of rising sea levels, while pointing towards a constructive (political) solution. For once, this is a politician in a ‘posed’ photograph that is likely to resonate with viewers.
What it shows: Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Ibrahim Didi signs the decree of an underwater cabinet meeting. Photo by Mohamed Seeneen
Principle: Show local (but serious) climate impacts
Floods in South Yorkshire Our research found that showing ‘local’ impacts can be powerful, so long as they are not trivial. In our survey, ‘local’ flood images (i.e. when they depicted the country where participants were from) tended to be powerful, and engaging across the political spectrum.
What it shows: Crane Moor Road Flood. Torrential rainfall in South Yorkshire on the 25th June 2007 led to the beck flooding in the afternoon. Photo by Wendy North change poses more generally which is that even now we can see it all around us, it still has this abstract quality to it. It’s everything and nothing all at the same time. You could argue that because climate change could be represented in an infinite number of ways that perhaps we’ve become collectively paralysed in sticking with the same visual clichés, because we know that, on one level, they work. If you stick a polar bear on an icecap on a story, it very quickly says ‘This story is about climate change’. On that superficial level it’s an effective strategy to communicate about the issue. But what kind of story does it tell? Is it a story about distant things that happened in remote places and to animals that you’ll never see, which, as much as you might feel a tug on the heartstrings, is not going to impact on your life? Or is it a story deeply intwined with how we consume, how we travel?
PL: The images are strangely depopulated... AC: Yeah, it’s odd that when you go looking for images that portray climate change there’s no people in the story. As a basic starting point, foregrounding the human dimension of climate change more strongly in our imagery is essential. As an organisation we have worked for about fifteen years on climate change communication and most of the work has been on language and how to frame messages. How do we tell stories? How do we construct narratives that engage with people? It was a long time into Climate Outreach’s work before anyone really started asking in a serious way, ‘Doesn’t it also matter what visual story we are telling people?’ We generally reached for the same old things that everyone else did. Our work has always been about using the psychology, using the social science...
PL: Tell me a little about the research that you’ve done and how you carried that out. AC: We carried out research in three countries – the UK, Germany and the US – where we showed people a wide range of different images, and we clustered them together so that people saw themed collections of images based on characteristics that we thought would be important to how they interpreted them. So some were geographically near to the people taking part, some were distant, some had people some didn’t have people, some were climate impact some were solutions focused. We then ran a survey in three countries with a thousand people in each country, so a nationally representative survey, with a smaller set of images and got some numerical responses: did it make them want to change their behaviour in any way? There really hadn’t been very much research before that had looked to provide practical guidance at the end of it. That’s what we do as an organisation. We analysed the research and we came up with a set of seven principles but also translated those findings into a climate change image based library. This was definitely a new thing: a set of images that represent – based on our research – the most effective way to go about climate