Images are a key part of the climate change communication process. The diverse and interdisciplinary literature on how people engage with visual representations of climate change is reviewed. Images hold particular power for engaging people, as they hold three qualities that differ from other communication devices (such as words or text): they are analogical, they lack an explicit propositional syntax, and they are indexical. These qualities are explored in relation to climate change imagery. A number of visual tropes common to climate change communication (identifiable people; climate change impacts; energy, emissions and pollution; protest; scientific imagery) are examined and the evidence for each of these visual tropes in terms of how they engage particular audiences is reviewed. Two case studies, of polar bear imagery and the “hockey stick” graph image, critically examine iconic imagery associated with climate change, and how and why these types of images may (dis)engage audiences. Six best-practice guidelines for visual climate change communication are presented and three areas for further research in this nascent field are suggested.
Julia B. Corbett and Brett Clark
The communication strategy of simply sharing more scientific information has not effectively engaged and connected people to climate change in ways that facilitate understanding and encourage action. In part, this is because climate change is a so-called wicked problem, given that it is socially complex, has many interdependencies, and lacks simple solutions. For many people, climate change is generally seen as something abstract and distant—something that they know about, but do not “feel.” The arts and humanities can play an important role in disrupting the social and cultural worldviews that filter climate information and separate the public from the reality of climate change. Whether it is the visual arts, dance, theater, literature, comedy, or film, the arts and humanities present engaging stories, corporally sensed and felt experiences, awareness of interdependency with the world, emotional meanings, and connection with place. Climate stories, especially those based on lived experiences, offer distinct ways to engage a variety of senses. They allow the “invisibility” of climate change to be seen, felt, and imagined in the past, present, and future. They connect global issues to conditions close to home and create space to grieve and experience loss. They encourage critical reflection of existing social structures and cultural and moral norms, thus facilitating engagement beyond the individual level. The arts and humanities hold great potential to help spur necessary social and cultural change, but research is needed on their reach and efficacy.
Julie Doyle, Nathan Farrell, and Michael K. Goodman
Since the mid-2000s, entertainment celebrities have played increasingly prominent roles in the cultural politics of climate change, ranging from high-profile speeches at UN climate conferences, and social media interactions with their fans, to producing and appearing in documentaries about climate change that help give meaning to and communicate this issue to a wider audience. The role afforded to celebrities as climate change communicators is an outcome of a political environment increasingly influenced by public relations and attuned toward the media’s representation of political ideas, policies, and sentiments. Celebrities act as representatives of mass publics, operating within centers of elite political power. At the same time, celebrities represent the environmental concerns of their audiences; that is, they embody the sentiments of their audiences on the political stage. It is in this context that celebrities have gained their authority as political, social, and environmental “experts,” and the political performances of celebrities provide important ways to engage electorates and audiences with climate change action. More recently, celebrities offer novel engagements with climate change that move beyond scientific data and facilitate more emotional and visceral connections with climate change in the public’s everyday lives. Contemporary celebrities, thus, work to shape how audiences and publics ought to feel about climate change in efforts to get them to act or change their behaviors. These “after data” moments are seen very clearly in Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Before the Flood. Yet, with celebrities acting as our emotional witnesses, they not only might bring climate change to greater public attention, but they expand their brand through neoliberalism’s penchant for the commoditization of everything including, as here, care and concern for the environment. As celebrities build up their own personal capital as eco-warriors, they create very real value for the “celebrity industrial complex” that lies behind their climate media interventions. Climate change activism is, through climate celebrities, rendered as spectacle, with celebrities acting as environmental and climate pedagogues framing for audiences the emotionalized problems and solutions to global environmental change. Consequently, celebrities politicize emotions in ways that that remain circumscribed by neoliberal solutions and actions that responsibilize audiences and the public.
Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley
There is a strong view among climate change researchers and communicators that the persuasive tactic of arousing fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and behavior is neither effective nor appropriate in the context of climate change communication and engagement. Yet the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence—either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context—nor would such evidence adequately address the issue of the appropriateness of fear appeals in climate change communication. Extensive research literatures addressing preparedness, prevention, and behavior change in the areas of public health, marketing, and risk communication generally nonetheless provide consistent empirical support for the qualified effectiveness of fear appeals in persuasive social influence communications and campaigns. It is also noteworthy that the language of climate change communication is typically that of “communication and engagement,” with little explicit reference to targeted social influence or behavior change, although this is clearly implied. Hence underlying and intertwined issues here are those of cogent arguments versus largely absent evidence, and effectiveness as distinct from appropriateness. These matters are enmeshed within the broader contours of the contested political, social, and environmental, issues status of climate change, which jostle for attention in a 24/7 media landscape of disturbing and frightening communications concerning the reality, nature, progression, and implications of global climate change. All of this is clearly a challenge for evaluation research attempting to examine the nature and effectiveness of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication, and for determining the appropriateness of designed fear appeals in climate change communications intended to both engage and influence individuals, communities, and “publics” with respect to the ongoing threat and risks of climate change. There is an urgent need to clearly and effectively communicate the full nature and implications of climate change, in the face of this profound risk and rapidly unfolding reality. All such communications are, inherently, frightening warning messages, quite apart from any intentional fear appeals. How then should we put these arguments, evidence, and challenges “on the table” in our considerations and recommendations for enhancing climate change communication—and addressing the daunting and existential implications of climate change?