LONDON, May 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - What does
climate change look like? For many people, the first – or
perhaps only – image that comes to mind is of smokestacks, or
polar bears perched on ice floes.
“If you go to Google and click on climate change images, you
have to go a long way before you hit many images of people,”
says Adam Corner, research director at Climate Outreach, an
Oxford-based thinktank that aims to boost public engagement on
But climate change already is affecting billions of people
around the world, from farmers in Zimbabwe experimenting with
new crops to battle drought to grandmothers in India who earn
cash selling solar home lighting systems, or children in the
United States coping with a longer allergy season.
Getting more of those people-focused images into the media,
into NGO campaigns and into other public communications could
help more people identify with the problem, see the
opportunities and understand the need for action, Corner said.
“There’s nothing wrong with polar bears,” he said. “But
they’re very distancing images. They identify climate change as
something that happens far away where most people’s lives
aren’t. They don’t do justice to the richness of the human
experience of climate change.”
In an effort to widen that narrow view, Corner’s
organisation has launched a new portal for climate change
Inspired by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In
effort – which has worked to make sure online searches for
images of women offer up more than just lingerie models – the
Climate Visuals portal showcases a diverse range of climate
change photographs drawn from stock photo agencies.
Images so far, provided by early partners such as U.S.-based
Aurora Photos, include U.S. homeowners installing attic
insulation, women in Burkina Faso pumping scarce water, and
European researchers studying the migration of grasses in the
Alps. There are scientists monitoring glaciers too – but no
“The question is, if you make a change upstream in what’s
available, can you politically influence the way people think
about that issue?” Corner said. “Climate change has gotten stuck
behind some iconic but limited images. We’re trying to kickstart
a broader, more diverse visual language for it.”
WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
The not-for-profit effort is far from the first to try to
reshape thinking about global warming and help people engage
with what, for some, feels like an invisible and distant problem
despite its clear and growing threats.
But the project is one of the first to look at images,
rather than language, something Corner finds surprising.
“It’s very strange given we’re an increasingly visual
culture,” he said. “The old adage about a picture painting a
thousand words is really true – especially given attention
Before launching the portal, Corner and colleagues conducted
surveys in the United States, Britain and Germany to find out
what people liked – and didn’t – about photographs of climate
What they discovered is that viewers wanted to see people
dealing with or taking action on climate change – though many
said they’re tired of seeing climate change protesters.
However, people don’t like being made to feel guilty about
their personal choices – such as flying rather than taking the
train, or eating steak rather than vegetables – so showing a
family going on holiday on a plane as an example of what needs
to change “can backfire”, Corner said.
Photographs of traffic jams or industrial-scale food waste –
both contributors to climate change – “people were more able to
accept as a cause of climate change and relate to”, he said.
Corner hopes the new portal will attract a range of
contributors and users, including media, NGOs and campaign
groups. Users will be able to click on the images on the portal
and be taken directly back to the agencies that supplied the
photos, with the agencies handling any sales.
He is also working with World Press Photo to try to
establish a new award category for climate change photographs in
next year’s competition – another way to encourage thinking
about a broader range of climate images beyond polar bears and
“The question is, what would happen if you don’t get just
that narrow range of images?” he asked. “Do people go clicking
for polar bears? Or would they be happy to find a more diverse
range of human stories – something they can relate to?”
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Alex
Whiting:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
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