by Marsha Rakestraw
While images of polar bears clinging to bits of ice or of widespread deforestation might motivate those of us who are biophiliacs, many people find them uninspiring.
Images can influence and galvanize us, but it matters what those images depict. When it comes to climate action, photos of polar bears and protesters don’t cut it.
Recent research, conducted by Climate Outreach and Global Call for Climate Action, offers evidence for the kinds of images we as humane educators and changemakers should use to inspire others to take positive action.
Researchers used two methods to gather data: they engaged in detailed discussions with 32 people in two countries; they also conducted a survey of more than 3,000 people across three countries, showing them various kinds of images and documenting their responses.
Based on the results, Climate Outreach created the Climate Visuals website, which contains several hundred images, organized by categories, that “correspond to and illustrate the key findings from the research – the only evidence-based library of climate photography in existence.”
Researchers have outlined seven key findings to help us increase our impact as climate communicators:
1. Show ‘real people’ not staged photo ops.
“Authentic” people showing emotions are good. Eye contact is powerful. Staged photos and photos of politicians are much less appealing. Real people doing real things are inspiring.
2. Tell new stories.
While “classic” climate images (like polar bears) were positively rated, they also “prompted cynicism and fatigue.” Researchers recommend new images to help tell multi-layered climate stories and inspire positive action. Humor and subversion can also be useful.
3. Show climate causes at scale.
Many people don’t understand the connection between climate change and their daily lives. Researchers discovered that “images of climate causes are more easily understood and sympathized with when they show problematic behavior at scale rather than on the individual level.” So, don’t show a family with their car; show a busy, congested road.
4. Climate impacts are emotionally powerful.
People responded most to images of climate impacts, rather than of causes. But such powerful images can engender feelings of hopelessness and hopelessness. So images of climate impacts are best coupled with “a concrete behavioural ‘action’ for people to take.”
5. Show local (but serious) climate impacts.
Research showed the importance of a balance between emphasizing local impacts, to help people feel the immediacy of the problem, and fostering concern for the wider impacts. As researchers noted, “over-emphasizing the local aspects of climate change may reduce people’s level of concern about the wider issue.”
6. Be very careful with protest imagery.
Generally, images of protests and protestors were viewed more negatively, as were images of “typical environmentalists.” Researchers determined that “most people do not feel an affinity with climate change protestors. More compelling were “protest images involving people directly affected by climate change impacts.”
7. Understand your audience.
Researchers emphasized that what resonates with one audience will turn off another. Understanding people’s worldviews and political beliefs can help us know how best to frame the conversation and which images to use.
While many of the findings from the report are useful, it’s important to acknowledge the study’s limitations. For example, the results are based on the views of only a few thousand people who were all American or European and largely white. A broader and more diverse survey might glean additional useful data.
Climate change is such an “intangible and abstract” concept that it is challenging for many of us to understand all its ramifications, let alone what we can do to make a meaningful difference. So, it’s essential that we humane educators and changemakers use every strategy we can to maximize our effectiveness, especially evidence-based strategies such as photos like those from Climate Visuals.