That picture of One Direction won’t save your climate comms - and other lessons
- 25 Jan 2013, 14:49
- Ros Donald and Christian Hunt
research from universities in the US,
Australia and the UK has tested how different pictures make people
feel about whether climate change is important, and whether they
can do something about it.
Inspired, we have decided to conduct our own
experiment on you, dear readers.
Researchers showed people images used to illustrate
newspaper climate change stories. They mostly split into three
categories: pictures of climate impacts, energy futures - meaning
new energy sources like solar panels - and pictures of celebrities
Images of climate impacts made people feel like
climate change is important, but they also made
them feel like there's not much they can do to stop
See this earth?
Credit: Vinod Panicker
I know, right?
The researchers found that pictures of energy futures
- including solar panels and energy efficiency measures - were most
likely to make people feel like they could do something
about climate change, because they represented ways people
could act by themselves.
Look at this example of successfully deployed
renewable technology. How's your efficacy doing?
Vattenfall (Creative Commons)
Worryingly, images of celebrities and politicians -
like Richard Branson, Al Gore and Julia Gillard - "made
participants in this study feel quite strongly that climate change
Now look at these climate celebrities. Do you feel
the salience drain away?
Credit: Vanity Fair
Via this blog
Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Here's a solar panel chaser to get you to the end of
The paper says:
attention-getting, amazing, uplifting, upsetting and even shocking
images therefore have the potential to raise awareness, as well as
inspire people to explore possible actions to take in the face of
"But in making the intangible tangible, climate imagery can also
paralyse and demobilise. In making climate change meaningful
through imagery, communications can act to increase or decrease
peoples' sense of both issue salience (whether climate change is
considered important) and their self-efﬁcacy (a sense of being able
to do anything about climate change)."
The field of 'climate communications' is increasingly
well developed, and campaigners spend a lot of time
thinking about how to write their messages in a motivating way.
we haven't seen much to suggest that
much thought is given to the images that are used to communicate
about climate change.
The research recommends that climate communicators
need to choose their images carefully, depending on the message
they want to put across. Stock images vaguely related to climate
change just won't do.
One of the papers's authors, Dr Saffron O'Neill from
the University of Exeter, told us:
"I don't think there's any 'ideal'
combination of images for engaging people with climate change, as
it depends what you are trying to communicate, why you are trying
to communicate it, and to whom.
"However, our study does indicate that it's important to decide
first whether you are trying to increase peoples' sense of saliency
(how important they feel climate change is), or their sense of
efficacy (whether they feel empowered to act). It appears images
may be able to influence one (either saliency or efficacy), but
none of the images seemed to be able to do both."
The authors stress that more work needs to be done on
the area, such as testing these images in non-English speaking
countries and looking more deeply at the things that inform the way
people look at images, like their ideological perspectives - or
even their mood.
But if the conclusions hold, there could be some
pretty sweeping implications for campaigns to inform or incite
action on climate change.
Note well, next organisation to ask
One Direction to front its Arctic
campaign. You'd be better off with a picture of a solar
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