Which images are most effective at getting peoples’ attention when it comes to climate change? A recent study from a British climate change communications firm surveyed thousands of people to come up with the following answers:
1. Protest photos: Unless the images are of people directly affected by climate impacts, pictures of environmental protests usually did not fare well among the survey respondents.
2. Posed photos: Unnatural, posed photos were seen as "gimmicky" and inauthentic. Images of posed politicians did the worst, while natural, unposed photos (for example, a man installing insulation) elicited the most positive response and interest.
3. Polar bears: The climate change mascot is beginning to lose its appeal. People are sad about polar bears, and people don't like to focus on what makes them sad.
4. Photos of climate change effects are much more impactful than climate change causes. This aligns well with our own market research, which shows that people respond much more positively to climate solutions than climate problems. By featuring images that show climate opportunities (the rise of clean energy, for example) rather than climate disasters, we are much more likely to inspire climate action.
While the survey draws from a small population of people, these general guidelines are useful when thinking about which climate change images to use on your own campus.
When I started out at Grist in 2013, I covered climate change activism — which was interesting, and still is. Whether you’re a fresh-faced youth from a maple syrup farm or a former hedge fund manager, trying to change the world for the better is a tricky business.
What was not interesting — what was negative interesting — was the photos. How do you represent divestment? At first, I tried to use photos from divestment-related events — which were pretty much always protests at college campuses.
But one campus protest looks pretty much like any other campus protest. And what to do about that guy — there’s always that guy — standing in middle of every shot, who’s a dead ringer for Ras Trent? College students have the earnestness, the lack of dependent minors, and the flexible schedules to really accommodate protest attendance — but they are far from representative of an entire movement.
And so I fell back on stock images. Divestment was about money — so how about a tiny person sailing across a money ocean? What about a tower of money reaching up into space? Not perfect, but it would have to do. But then how to illustrate oil-by-rail? What about a new solar panel regulation ruling? Or another story about melting glaciers? Have polar bears jumped the shark?
A recent study from Climate Outreach, a British climate change communication think tank, sets out to answer just this question: What images do the best job of making climate change — which consists of difficult-to-photograph, or empathize with, changes to the troposphere — seem like a real thing that people might want to pay attention to?