Beyond polar bears? Re-envisioning climate change


  • Kate Manzo

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    1. School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
    • School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
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Against an academic and policy backdrop of interest in (and concerns about) the issue, this paper draws on a range of academic writing in various disciplines to explore visual strategies of climate change communication. The geographic scope of the investigation is the United Kingdom, with particular attention to recognizable icons of climate change in UK media and the images used in political campaigns. The paper is in two parts. The first part concentrates on various efforts to put a ‘face’ on the climate change issue, while part two suggests that weather and renewable energy are the dominant alternative motifs.

The paper draws a basic distinction between fear-laden representations of climate change and a variety of visual efforts to use so-called inspirational imagery. All of the images reviewed suggest an affirmative answer to the question in the title, there are multiple efforts underway to move beyond polar bears and represent climate change in more creative and meaningful ways. The bigger question addressed is one raised already by photographers as well as academics, i.e. whether documentary photography (rather than particular types of images) is the more fundamental issue. The answer in the paper is that photographs are no different from other visual images in their capacity to draw attention to messages. The challenge is to use visuals creatively, in ways that prompt positive engagement with climate change without enhancing public disengagement and fatalism. Copyright © 2010 Royal Meteorological Society

1. Introduction

Don't panic, or shout. Please move quickly to the nearest exit (of our current “business as usual” scenario) and start communicating constructively about climate change! (Maibach and Priest, 2009)

In addition to distancing the viewer from the issue, fear-inducing communication approaches were found to enhance a sense of fatalism and thus act to encourage disengagement with climate change rather than positive engagement. (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009)

The focus of this paper is the communication of climate change messages through visual means. This topic is especially timely for a number of reasons. Firstly, a special issue of Science Communication devoted to ‘action strategies for communicating climate change’ is indicative of the academic research agenda now devoted to this issue (Maibach and Priest, 2009). The broad question raised by the collection is how to boost the cognitive, affective and behavioural elements of climate change engagement without resorting to methods such as fear appeals that are, at best, a double-edged sword (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

Secondly, a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with bases in the United Kingdom have launched campaigns designed to connect the environmental problem of climate change to development issues of global poverty and social justice. Illustrative campaigns by Oxfam and Christian Aid have adopted ‘people not polar bears’ as their motivational slogan, suggesting that questions about climate change images have resonance outside the academy (Manzo, 2010).

Last but not least, a recent study of American perceptions of climate change suggested that fewer people than ever are convinced of the reality of global warming. Of those that are, only 36% attribute the phenomenon to human activity (Goldenberg, 2009a). Commentators are divided as to whether the figures reflect diminishing concern about climate change in the midst of an economic crisis affecting many Americans, or the success of a sophisticated ‘climate cover-up’ designed to deliberately mislead (Goldenberg, 2009a; see also Hoggan and Littlemore, 2009). Either way, the survey demonstrates varying levels of climate change cognition (knowledge and understanding of climate science), affect (interest in and concern about the issue) and behaviour (personal engagement and motivations to act).

Against this academic and policy backdrop, the paper reviews and analyses a variety of visual means used to engage the general public on the climate change issue. Limitations of space preclude a comprehensive and global overview of images. The geographic scope is therefore limited to the United Kingdom, with particular attention to recognizable icons of climate change in UK media and the images used in political campaigns. Part one concentrates on various efforts to put a ‘face’ on the climate change issue, of which the best-known example is a German polar bear named Knut, while part two suggests that weather and renewable energy (everything from climate change atlases to images of solar panels and windmills) are the dominant alternative motifs.

Previous research demonstrates that iconic representations of climate change are often distancing (i.e. making climate change seem far away in time and space) and paradoxical in the way they heighten people's sense of the issue's importance while simultaneously making them feel less able to do anything about it. The same image, in other words, may be alienating and disempowering even as it raises public awareness and consciousness (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

If ‘non threatening imagery and icons…tend to be the most engaging’ then ‘dramatic representations’ arguably need to be ‘partnered with those that enable a person to establish a sense of connection with the causes and consequences of climate change in a positive manner’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). By the same token, climate change is an issue that can be framed in multiple ways, and ‘different framings resonate more powerfully with some audiences than they do with others’(Hulme, 2009). These findings suggest that different images do different kinds of work, and an image that is highly effective in one realm (e.g. climate change cognition) may be ineffective in another (such as affect or behaviour). Thus, while individual images may be open to critique, undue reliance on a limited set of images and frames is equally problematic.

The aim of this paper is not to disagree with that suggestion but to extend it, by reviewing not only fear-laden imagery but also a variety of visual efforts to inspire positive engagement with climate change. The analysis to follow raises broader questions about the role of documentary photography in the communication of climate change messages. Both academics (e.g. Doyle, 2007) and photographers have noted that the complexity of climate change and its potential and often invisible risks make the issue difficult ‘to illustrate photographically’ (see Smyth, 2007). Examples of campaign images produced by Christian Aid are given to show how ‘unreal’ images of climate change can offer the most successful departures from paradoxical iconography.

The overall conclusion is that documentary photographs of the current state of the world have some place in climate change communications, along with such visual representations of climate science as graphs, atlases, and maps. Climate change visualization has a long history, however, in art as well as photography (Hulme, 2009), and efforts to find creative and inspiring ways of communicating climate change are still being undertaken by contemporary artists and political cartoonists among others. Acknowledging the limits of the factual snapshot can only help to open up a space for such efforts.

2. Faces of climate change: polar bears and people

2.1. The wildlife frame: polar bears as icons of global warming

Not so long ago polar bears were a symbol of cold, but these days they are a symbol of warmth…the newly helpless emblem of climate change. (Garfield, 2007)

It's the age of the melt…when the stranded polar bear became the symbol of the times. (Vidal, 2008a)

Survey work shows that the power of the polar bear icon to represent climate change in the minds of the public rests on its emotional appeal. (Hulme, 2009)

The joint recipients of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize were the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and American politician Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr., ‘for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change’ (, 2007).

Gore's magnum opus An Inconvenient Truth (2006) contains only one image of polar bears, a photograph of a mother bear and her cub shot in Norway in 2002, in a book replete with all manner of visuals (Gore, 2006). More recently, a collaborative effort by a climate scientist and a photographer to provide a visual record of climate change and make the science accessible contained only a single image of a lone polar bear (Schmidt and Wolfe, 2009). In conjunction with the above quote from Hulme, these works suggest that the role of the polar bear in climate change communication has more to do with affect than cognition.

The particular polar bears arguably responsible for doing ‘what environmentalists could not’ and opening ‘a window on a global crisis’ (Garfield, 2007) are not the Norwegian pair featured in An Inconvenient Truth. The main candidates are, first of all, two Alaskan polar bears that seemed to be trapped on melting ice and ‘howling against injustice’ when first photographed in 2004 (Garfield, 2007). Their image was widely reprinted (and much discussed) 3 years later, after it was released by the Canadian Ice Service to coincide with an IPCC report on disappearing sea ice. Although ‘the first thought among viewers’ may well have been ‘pity and concern’, a number of ‘nay-saying bloggers’ have gone from questioning the authenticity of the photograph to discrediting ‘the claim of bears at risk, and in some cases the very existence of global warming’ (Garfield, 2007).

The second main icon is a German polar bear named Knut, who ‘is estimated to be the biggest cash-grossing animal of all time’ (Smyth, 2007). So-called Knutmania (see Hall, 2008) dates back to 2006, when the hand-reared bear cub at Berlin Zoo was adopted by Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's environment minister, ‘in return for using his logo in the campaign against global warming’ (Connolly, 2007). Since then, ‘Knut has inspired everything from cuddly toys and windscreen cleaners to films and books, has become a symbol for the campaign against global warming and has even appeared on the front of Vanity Fair’. So valuable a commodity has Knut become, indeed, that two German zoos, Berlin, where he lives, and Neumunster, his legal owners, are currently locked in a custody battle over rights to his revenues (Connolly, 2009).

These examples demonstrate how images of polar bears have been used for commercial and political ends. The strategic use of their images, which is both cause and effect of the animal's status as ‘icon of the climate change movement’, helps explain why polar bears are now ‘the second most popular animal to adopt through the World Wildlife Fund, after orang-utans’ (Barton, 2008), but such charitable giving only begs further questions, about why images of polar bears prompt that type of response, as well as about the extent to which familiar iconic images have the capacity to spark behavioural change.

Polar bears have been described as ‘the serial killer of the Arctic’, and yet they are memorably photographed ‘looking sweet and sad and lovable’ (Barton, 2008). The fact that these bears invariably appear to be ‘helpless’ and ‘stranded’ (as the above quotes mention) draws attention to the precariousness of their situation, thus heightening the viewers' sense of the animals' vulnerability to danger and threat. Equally importantly, iconic polar bears appear either in twos (both of the examples above were of a mother and her cub) or alone (like Knut).

Literature in psychology on the so-called identifiable victim effect helps to cast light on the emotional appeal of polar bears. The basic idea is that numbers (or ‘dry statistics’) fail to either spark emotion or motivate action in the same way as images do, and ‘when it comes to eliciting compassion, the identified individual victim, with a face and a name, has no peer’ (Slovic, 2007). A number of studies suggest that ‘the emotive or affective feeling is greatest at N = 1 but begins to decline at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N’, at which point ‘psychic numbing’ or ‘turning off’ leads to ‘apathy and inaction’ (Slovic, 2007). The implication of these findings is that images of a lone polar bear such as Knut win hands down in the affective stakes, with images of two bears together coming a close second and ‘cold hard facts’ about polar bears a distant third (Garfield, 2007).

The focus of psychology studies is evidently images of human beings, but a related look ‘at the role of shock, sadness and need in contemporary fundraising’ has extended relevant insights to animals. Thanks to the findings of market research, which show that images of ‘immediate suffering’ facilitate sympathy and lead to the biggest donations, some animal charities only feature images of ‘sad’ donkeys that are in some distress and in need of help, the ‘before’ photos and not those showing the consequences of the organization's assistance (Ribeiro, 2009).

All of this suggests that iconic images of polar bears have some role to play in climate change communication, but however much they raise awareness, elicit emotion and move people to act, the standard polar bear images are also limited in a couple of ways. Firstly, if the audience engaged is only ‘wildlife lovers’ then polar bear images will have ‘little or no traction among those who are not interested in polar bears’ (Hulme, 2009). A different kind of image may thus be required to attract a larger (or simply different) audience.

Secondly, ‘images of polar bears stranded on ice floes’ are a constitutive element of the ‘fear appeals’ so prevalent in climate change communications (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Academic research suggests that while fearful messages are effective in attracting attention, they can also heighten the impression that ‘climate change is a distant issue in both time and space’. This is counter-productive for ‘meaningful engagement’, which arguably ‘must involve some degree of connection with “the everyday”, in both spatial and temporal terms’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

Bearing those limitations in mind, the following section addresses the role played by images of human beings in climate change communication in the United Kingdom.

2.2. The justice and equity frame: the global poor as victims of climate change

Twenty-five million more children will go hungry by the middle of this century as climate change leads to food shortages and soaring prices for staples such as rice, wheat, maize and soya beans, a report says today. (Goldenberg, 2009b)

Climate change is hard to define in terms of photography. It's often hard to pinpoint which problems have specifically been caused by it. (Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin, quoted in Smyth, 2007)

The media, and newspapers in particular, has been described as ‘the most significant channel of information that the general public receives about climate change’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009; see also Hulme, 2009).

This section considers two of the standard ways in which UK media put a human face on climate change messages. The first (as the above quote from Goldenberg in the Guardian illustrates) is reportage, i.e. the publication of overviews of the findings of scientific investigations and policy documents. The second is advertising space, i.e. the sale or donation of column inches to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) aiming to reach a target audience via the media. A third (and more novel) way in which newspapers can communicate climate change messages is through direct action campaigns of their own. An example of such activity, the Guardian newspaper's so-called 10:10 campaign, is reviewed in the following section.

Under the broad heading ‘climate change’, the newspaper article quoted above followed with the headline that ‘by 2050, 25 m more children will go hungry’. The substance of the piece was devoted to the findings of research undertaken for the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The research report's conclusion, as summarized by the Guardian correspondent, was that ‘if global warming goes unchecked, all regions of the world will be affected, but the most vulnerable, south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, will be hit hardest by failing crop yields’ (Goldenberg, 2009b). Two graphs, one showing percentage declines in crop yields and the other a projected rise in worldwide numbers of malnourished children, were used in illustration, but in an echo of the psychology literature on ‘identifiable victims’, the main visual accompanying the article was a photograph of a solitary child (who stares unsmilingly at the camera as he bats a swirl of flies from around his head) taken at a feeding centre in Ethiopia.

Both the single child image and the accompanying headline are worth highlighting because they exemplify the paradoxes and pitfalls of certain kinds of human-centred strategies of climate change communication. Empirical research shows that famine images of starving children come high on a list of paradoxical visuals, i.e. images that make climate change seem important while simultaneously ‘making participants feel most unable to do anything about climate change’. Furthermore, a number of studies show that ‘individuals have difficulty visualizing future periods’, and ‘scenarios describing the 2050s’ are considered ‘so far into the future as to be almost completely hypothetical’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

Even if the starving child image and future-oriented headlines are useful in raising awareness and attracting attention, there are compelling reasons to doubt their efficacy in climate change communication. The first (as suggested in the above quote from Franklin) pertains to public understanding of cause and effect. Climate science models demonstrate a connection between anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) climate change and examples of ‘large-scale human suffering’ such as the Sahel drought of the 1970s and 1980s. From this it seems to follow that climate change can cause drought and drought, in turn, can cause food shortages. Alternatives to graphs and hungry children as visual means of representing the science include an Ethiopian farmer in a field of shrivelled maize and satellite images of Lake Chad shrinking in size over time (Schmidt and Wolfe, 2009).

What doesn't automatically follow is the assumption that climate change causes either famine in general or particular famines, because ‘famine involves politics’ (Edkins, 2000). Just as ‘dry statistics’ are a ‘turn-off’ for some, simplistic correlations between climate change and famine will only alienate those who think of the latter in relation to complex political emergencies rather than food crises and natural disasters.

A related problem is with the iconography of childhood, which is culturally over-determined as a signifier of global problems. Images of lone (generally African) children have been used extensively by NGOs to draw attention to everything from famine and conflict to trade injustice and rich countries' policies on aid and debt (Manzo, 2008). Over-use of the same emotive images may continually re-ignite a compassion response in viewers, but they do nothing for either development education or climate change cognition.

Last but not least, the value of such emotive imagery is debated even among NGOs that benefit financially from ‘pity and guilt’. The alternative is what Action Aid's Richard Turner calls ‘the inspiration business’, which aims to use ‘happy’ images and inspirational stories to attract a different kind of supporter. Instead of a high number of guilt–ridden donors making one-off donations, Action Aid hopes to attract ‘more donors who are highly engaged with the organization, who will campaign and donate in multiple ways’ (quoted in Ribeiro, 2009). The implication here is that different kinds of images attract different kinds of audience response, and climate change communication designed to do more than elicit charitable donations cannot rely on stock images of suffering and vulnerability.

The above quote from Franklin suggests that the bigger problem is documentary photography per se rather than particular kinds of images. One way to explore this issue is to consider how images of suffering have been used creatively by the NGO Christian Aid (CA) in its ‘Climate changed’ and ‘Poverty’ campaigns.

An example analysed previously is the 2007 advertisement nicknamed ‘goat man’ by CA. The main frame features a solitary man seated on barren soil in front of the corpses of two goats. Superimposed onto the photograph taken in Niger are the words: ‘Sorry to bother you. Any chance of turning that thermostat down a degree?’ Although ‘goat man’ doesn't look happy, his image is an example of inspirational campaigning in that its use was designed to circumvent guilt and empower the viewer to act (Manzo, 2010). The image is ‘unreal’ in the sense that the subject doesn't actually speak the words, which have been put into his mouth by CA, but it's the reference to the thermostat that is arguably empowering, because images of thermostats (either real or imaginary) are among those that made a previous study's participants feel ‘most able to do something about climate change’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

A more recent campaign image (which, like ‘goat man’, has appeared in several editions of the Guardian newspaper) is shown in Figure 1. The central message, which is that ‘climate change threatens more than just polar bears and ice caps’, shares a number of affinities with related initiatives such as Oxfam's ‘Here and Now’ campaign. The shared message is that ‘climate change is first and foremost a human story’ (Oxfam, 2009). Climate change, furthermore, is not a distant threat but a current reality, especially for the world's poor, who are suffering already from unprecedented floods and volatile weather patterns.

Figure 1.

Christian Aid poverty advertisement. Reproduction is with kind permission of Christian Aid. This figure is available in colour online at

The novel inclusion of the logo ‘Poverty’ at the bottom of the CA advertisement in Figure 1 is part of a broader strategic re-launch of the organization's overarching message, which is that global poverty must be ended and not simply reduced. As explained by Eliot Whittington, Climate Justice Adviser at Christian Aid, the main message is that poverty eradication rather than alleviation should be the development objective. The sub-message is that climate change is a contemporary problem for the people in poor countries (interview with the author, November 2009).

Oxfam and CA are not alone in arguing for the integration of development policy into climate actions, but their discursive reliance on the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy sets these organizations apart from those that tend to look further ahead. The 32ndWorld Development Report entitled Development and Climate Change, for example, argues that ‘developing countries will bear the brunt of climate change’, not that they are bearing the brunt of it right now (World Bank, 2010, my emphasis).

The most notable feature of the ‘more than just polar bears and ice caps’ advertisement, for current purposes, is its departure from photographic realism in the morphing together of two conventional icons of climate change, namely melting ice (a signifier of Arctic sea temperature rises) and cracked earth (a symbol of drought). By dissolving the boundaries between recognizable aspects (or symptoms) of climate change and by replacing polar bears with people, the computer simulation effectively does what separate ‘real’ photographs could not. It unites climate science and development geography in a single image of an inter-connected world.

What ‘goat man’ arguably does more effectively is to link together the global aspects of climate change with certain kinds of ‘action images’ deemed ‘necessary to make people feel empowered to make a difference’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). The viewers of the more recent CA advertisement are exhorted in the small print to lobby the Prime Minister and thus engage in a form of political action designed to influence policy, but this is different from the sorts of long-term changes in behaviour captured by the term ‘individual decarbonization’, i.e. lifestyle changes in car use and electricity generation for the purpose of cutting domestic emissions (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

An example of a campaign designed to achieve cuts in emissions by targeting not only individuals but organizations as well, is the focus of the following section.

2.3. The 10:10 campaign: the global rich as agents of (climate) change

Today the Guardian is helping to launch 10:10, a major new climate campaign that asks individuals, businesses and organisations of all kinds to try to cut their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010. The hope is that thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of you, will get involved, and in doing so send a powerful message to politicians that we want tougher action against warming. (The Guardian, 2009a)

Future generations writing the history of climate change may be struck by an apparent paradox: while millions of educated people, perhaps most of them, alive in the first decade of the 21st century acknowledged the threat posed by the build-up of greenhouse gases and their part in creating it, only a tiny number did anything about it. (Katz, 2009)

The above quotes succinctly capture the parameters of the 10:10 campaign, which has its own signature metal tag that can be worn as a necklace (Adam, 2009), its own campaign slogan (‘We're Doing 10:10') and a dedicated website ( The campaign's underlying premise is that climate action requires a combination of political pressure and behavioural change, not only from individuals but also from a diverse array of social forces such as corporate enterprises, NGOs, cultural institutions and trade unions.

The campaign is ambitious in its aim to foster ‘a more enlightened understanding of our collective self-interest’ and yet modest in its challenge to Britain to make ‘relatively small sacrifices such as changing light-bulbs, insulating our homes more effectively, turning down our central heating or swapping one or two flights a year for rail journeys’. The hope is that evidence of ‘meaningful action’ by ‘ordinary people’, either acting alone or through ‘improbable alliances’ between strange bedfellows such as energy companies and environmental activists, will force not only the British government but also ‘developing nations, in particular China and India’ to submit to legally binding international limits on carbon emissions (Katz, 2009).

Previous research into climate change communication in UK newspapers has featured both tabloids (Boykoff, 2008) and broadsheets (Carvalho, 2007, cited in Hulme, 2009). The latter study found that in contrast to The Times, which tends to emphasize scientific uncertainties and market-oriented policies, both the Guardian and the Independent give ‘greater weight to scientific assessments of climate change risks’ and demand ‘stronger political intervention’ (Hulme, 2009). The 10:10 campaign, which is directed by film maker Franny Armstrong, whose previous claim to fame was the ‘feted eco drama-documentary The Age of Stupid’ (Jeffries, 2009) is thus an extension of (rather than rupture with) the Guardian's noted orientation to climate change. This particular campaign is a vehicle for political change that overtly attempts to overcome an evident conundrum for climate change communication, namely the paradoxical unity of public knowledge and generalized inaction.

The same paradox is not limited to Britons, as it has been identified in a large survey of Americans conducted in 2004 (Kellstedt et al., 2008, cited in Hulme, 2009). The study challenged the so-called knowledge-deficit model of science—which assumes that the way to change people's behaviour is via efficient and frequent scientific communication, with the finding that “‘more scientifically informed” respondents not only felt less personally responsible for global warming, but also showed less concern about it' (Hulme, 2009).

In echo of the academic finding that ‘fear won't do it’, any more than raw science as a motivator of behavioural change (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009), an article for the 10:10 campaign reiterated that fear ‘only works when people feel personally vulnerable’, and ‘psychological research shows that most people in the United Kingdom don't feel personally threatened by climate change because it is vague, abstract and difficult to visualize’. The author continued that ‘finding ways of making climate change more visible is critical’ because ‘people simply don't worry about things they can't see’ (Corner, 2009).

In reviewing the visual strategies deployed by the 10:10 campaign, the remainder of this section focuses on predominant types of images of people. Notable alternatives, which are mainly icons of weather, are discussed in part 2.

The 10:10 campaign's people-centred visuals can be divided into four general categories. The first is conventional portraiture. The standard image is a forward-facing mug-shot of a celebrity supporter, who explains the reasons for taking part in accompanying text (see for example Frostrup, 2009 and the entire 10:10 issue of the Guardian, 2009a). The wider context is therefore celebrity activism around climate change, the best known example being the Al Gore-inspired Live Earth pop concert of 2007.

The second category is ‘ordinary people’ in Britain, who are photographed with work colleagues and family members as well as standing alone. They thus represent larger entities than themselves, i.e. workers, families and, in the case of ‘Daisy Peak, 16, of Tottenham, north London’, students and committed young people (see Glover, 2009). The group shots (which are plentiful on the 10:10 official website) also serve to illustrate an article called ‘together we can make a real impact’; they are thus meant to signify the virtue of collection action as well as individual behavioural change (McCloud, 2009). A related slogan would be ‘act now, act together, and act differently’, which is the World Bank's current recipe for a ‘climate-smart world’ (World Bank, 2010).

The image of Daisy Peak, who is photographed smiling as she holds up a sign saying ‘grow veg on the balcony’, is one of 32 similar shots of individuals to appear in a gallery of ‘10:10 supporters at the campaign launch with their pledges’ (The Guardian, 2009b). But Daisy also appears alone on the front page of the same issue of the newspaper, in a story about how ‘Britain has become a nation of guilty greens, people who admit they do not do enough to fight climate change’ (Glover, 2009). The ‘happy’ image of Daisy is thus indicative of the so-called inspiration business mentioned earlier. She is an icon of personal responsibility for climate change mitigation, designed to overcome the paradox of knowledge plus inaction with something other than a fear-laden message.

The last two categories of campaign image restore the global context to climate change communication, which participants in earlier studies agree is important as long as it's done ‘carefully so as to avoid making people feel afraid or overwhelmed and totally helpless’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Images of Britons taking action on climate change tap into a certain understanding of cause and effect, which is expressed in the argument that the so-called developed world is disproportionately responsible for climate change, and therefore must take the lead on mitigation, while the world's poorest and most vulnerable, who contribute the least to global carbon emissions, currently suffer the most from such symptoms of climate change as higher sea levels (see for example Elliott and Seager, 2007; Manzo, 2008; World Bank, 2010).

The previous section noted how a particular icon of suffering and vulnerability, namely the starving child image used so often by development NGOs (Manzo, 2008), has entered the climate change frame. The method of transmission was described as reportage, but it's worth mentioning here that images of the victims of climate change have occasionally also appeared in the Guardian under the banner of 10:10. For example, a report on the impacts of ‘devastating drought’ in East Africa was accompanied by four different visuals (Vidal, 2009): a map showing the estimated numbers of people requiring emergency assistance in the Horn of Africa; the remains of a dead cow near Nairobi; nomadic people eking out a living in Northern Kenya; and the 10:10 logo along with the campaign's website address.

A less conventional visual strategy of reporting on the varied impacts of climate change is the use of art rather than photography. The book Burning Ice—Art and Climate Change, which charts the observations of artists with first-hand experience of melting arctic ice, exemplifies collaborative projects between artists and scientists (Buckland et al., 2006). It was followed in 2007 by a touring exhibition that began at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway, under the title ‘Melting Ice: A Hot Topic’ (see, 2007).

Another type of collaboration is that between artists and development organizations. The artist and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, for example, went with Oxfam to Bangladesh in 2009 to meet the residents of a flood-threatened community. The outcome was a collection of photographs and paintings, which together ‘exude a powerful feeling of fragility’ (Henley, 2009). The body of work serves to illustrate how (with Oxfam's help) the Bangladeshi villagers are adapting to the effects of increasingly unpredictable weather. Furthermore, the images illustrate Hewlett's own conviction that ‘it's the poorest people of the world who are suffering now, already, from the effects of global warming caused by the richest’ (quoted in Henley, 2009).

The Hewlett paintings would be impossible to associate with 10:10 had they not been tagged with the campaign logo by the Guardian online (see Henley, 2009). The wider significance of the paintings is neither the iconography of suffering (and fragility, or vulnerability) nor the 10:10 campaign, but rather the question they speak to, which is: ‘can art succeed where science is proving insufficient to generate the will to act effectively on climate change?’(Bunting, 2009).

As some museum curators reportedly search for ‘an iconic image that will smash through indifference and become the rallying cry for a generation’ (Bunting, 2009), climate scientists at the National Observatory of Athens are using the landscape paintings of old masters to help understand a phenomenon called ‘global dimming’ and its relationship to climate change (Adam, 2007a). Yet another example of the use of art in climate change communication is political cartoons. A competition organized by the Ken Sprague Fund, for example, invited ‘powerful, uncompromising and uncomfortable images’ designed to bring home the real meaning of climate change: ‘not a Costa del Sol on the Welsh coast and palm trees in the garden, but desertification, hunger and poverty’ (John Green, quoted in Adam, 2008). Most of the entries (from 150 artists in more than 50 countries) relied not on ‘doom-laden predictions and scientific facts’ but on ‘barbed humour’ to get their message across (Adam, 2008).

In sum, art, as with documentary photography, is a vehicle of communication that can take different forms and transmit different messages. What this first part of the paper has shown, through analysis of various efforts to put a face on climate change, is a recurrence of certain motifs, notably the lone face (be it of a polar bear, a starving child, a man with dead goats, or a 10:10 campaigner), the personification of suffering, and the personification of activism and responsibility. In their entirety, these images can arguably effectively address all three aspects of climate change communication, namely cognition, affect, and behaviour, but few and far between are single images that, such as ‘goat man’, attempt all three at once.

The mother and child image in the more recent CA campaign shown in Figure 1 is an example of how human and non-human icons of climate change can be brought together in the same frame. Further examples appear in what follows. For analytical purposes, however, the paper is divided into two parts and the next one concentrates on icons of extreme weather and renewable energy. As the overview will demonstrate, efforts to inspire rather than frighten viewers are evident here as well.

3. Alternative images of climate change: icons of extreme weather and renewable energy

In a book called Climate Change: Picturing the Science, Schmidt and Wolfe (2009) begin with the ‘symptoms’ of climate change before moving on to ‘diagnosis’ and ‘possible cures’. This illustrates a point made already, which is that climate change is inherently difficult to visualize. Much of what passes for climate change visualization is actually addressed to its symptoms (mainly global warming but also sea level change), the effects of the symptoms (typically extreme weather patterns associated with rainfall but also sun-drenched areas and early springs), and potential sources of mitigation (principally renewable energy). To complicate matters further, the direct and indirect effects of climate change, as well as the phenomenon itself, are often unseen, the classic examples being lack of ice floes at the Earth's poles and lack of rain in drought-stricken areas.

Signifiers of absence as well as presence thus feature prominently in the icons of climate change considered below. This is by no means a comprehensive overview, due to limitations of space. However, the focus on a variety of images used in climate science, media coverage, and climate change campaigns is extensive enough to give a flavour of the range of existing options and support my broader argument about the limitations of certain visual strategies of climate change communication.

3.1. Extreme weather: global warming and the effects of climate change

Climate change is a very complex problem and in a sense it's not photographic. From looking at a single image you don't know if a glacier is melting or receding, or even that there is a problem. You can't show the catastrophe without comparative images and text to bring it into context. (Photojournalist and artist Nick Cobbing, quoted in Smyth, 2007)

An example of the sort of comparative visualization advocated by Cobbing in the quote above can be found in a gallery of ‘global warming photographs’ displayed at, a website produced by an international coalition of environmental organizations including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Sierra Club. Two photographs taken in Glacier National Park, Montana (one in 1911 and the other in 2000), illustrate the argument that ‘all glaciers in the park will be gone by 2070 if retreat continues at its current rate’ (Braasch, 2009).

As effective as they may be in illustrating climate change rather than climate per se, those photographs are not as famous or newsworthy as another one related to the same theme. In the year that Cobbing went to Greenland to photograph the Greenland Ice Cap for Greenpeace (see Smyth, 2007), photographic artist Spencer Tunick went to Switzerland for the same organization. The outcome was a single image that (similarly with the photograph of the Alaskan polar bears mentioned earlier) has been widely publicized and become an icon of global warming.

Tunick's photograph of ‘600 warm-blooded volunteers amassed on a shrinking glacier in Switzerland’ was designed to draw attention to ‘global warming and the melting Swiss glaciers, which are predicted to disappear by 2080’ (the Observer, 2007). The image has been reproduced, among other places, in ‘Whatever the Weather…The Calendar of Climate Change’, under the heading ‘twin vulnerabilities’. The accompanying text elaborates that ‘both ice (hard) and the human body (soft) are equally vulnerable to time and temperature’ (Flipside Vision, 2009a, November). The paradoxical juxtaposition of mass nakedness and frozen landscape is thus an attention-grabbing means of visualizing what cannot by definition be photographed, i.e. the absence of glaciers far in the future.

A more conventional use of single images to draw attention to global warming, which departs from the strictures of documentary photography, is mapping. Coloured globes and climate change atlases or ‘hot maps’ can illustrate cause and effect in ways that highlight global differences and spatial variation as well as future trends. So-called carbon atlases of countries' emissions show at a glance the vast differences in current output between leading ‘hot spots’ (namely the United States and China) and continents such as Africa, which has the smallest aggregate levels (see for example the Guardian, 2007).

More forward-looking globes and atlases produced by entities such as the IPCC and the UK government typically use colour to signify dangerous rises in surface temperature and their variable effects. Acceptable rises are shaded in yellows and oranges while the higher echelons go from red to purple to black (see Adam, 2007b; Adam and Stratton, 2009).

Such graphic attempts to illustrate ‘how the globe will heat up by the end of this century’ (Adam, 2007) and to represent ‘the face of a 4C hotter world in 2060’ (Adam and Stratton, 2009) are arguably an effective communication tool for a variety of users. Globes and atlases are capable of succinctly illustrating a wide variety of spatial and temporal patterns, but however useful mapping may be as a tool of climate change cognition, it is also paradoxical and potentially counter-productive as a route to constructive public engagement.

Maps that spatialise danger are a traditional tool of geopolitics and thus inherently political (O'Tuathail and Dalby, 1998). These devices can, therefore, serve political interests as much as the interests of science. The UK government's 2009 publication of a climate change atlas produced by the Met Office Hadley Centre, for example, came just before international climate change talks to be held in Copenhagen that year. The attendant press release highlighted not only future scenarios and possible threats from global warming but also the scale of the current challenge facing the world and the ‘danger posed by a political failure at the talks’ (Adam and Stratton, 2009).

Such political machinations are arguably to be celebrated if they culminate in an international climate change deal which (as shown earlier) is also an indirect aim of the 10:10 campaign, but if the purpose is to draw public attention to objective or ‘external’ definitions of danger, i.e. scientific risk analysis of various future scenarios, then climate change maps suffer from the same limitations as other fear-inducing communications. They encourage general disengagement by signifying distance as well as danger. Positive engagement with the so-called catastrophe frame and related iconographies of danger is thereby confined to two groups of people: those with some subjective or ‘internal’ experience and/or perception of danger; and those who worry as much about the future as the present (Hulme, 2009).

Efforts to draw attention to the global scale of the climate change problem in ways that expose varying degrees of cause and effect pose other difficulties as well. What might be called the ‘drop in the ocean’ problem is the conviction that individual actions are ‘unlikely to make any significant contribution in relation to the scale of the problem’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Here the logic of the 10:10 campaign, which invites ordinary citizens to lead by example, is inverted by inertia (‘my actions won't make much difference so why bother?’) and/or blame-shifting (‘why should we bother when they are so much worse?’). A notable example of this counter-logic at work (as well as challenges to it) came during media coverage of the Live Earth concert of 2007. American communications expert Frank Luntz and the British Broadcasting Corporation's environment correspondent David Shukman sought to undermine perceptions of the United States as a global ‘anti-Christ’ (thanks mainly to former President George Bush's policies) by detailing American climate change action at the individual, state and corporate levels (BBC, 2007).

Surveys that suggest a growing scepticism on global warming among American citizens (as mentioned in the introduction) only reinforce a particular geopolitical imagination, one that sees the world in terms of a good/bad dichotomy and locates assorted others (George Bush, the United States as a whole, or China) in the anti-Christ camp on climate change action. A contrary geopolitical imagination—which differs too from the development frame of rich culprit and poor victim—views climate change as a problem with global effects (extreme weather patterns) as well as global symptoms (surface temperature and sea level rises). Portrayals of American victims, such as the photograph in Schmidt and Wolfe (2009) of a Florida woman on a sand flood in her home after storm surges associated with hurricanes, are an example of images that are consistent with this ‘whole-earth’ discourse on climate change (which is discussed further in Manzo, 2010).

Storm surges and hurricanes imply the co-existence of wind and rain. An equally prevalent (if not dominant) measure of extreme weather is abnormal patterns of rainfall. The standard indicators of superabundance and scarcity are floods on the one hand and droughts on the other. Since flood implies too much rain in a short period while drought implies too little over time, the conventional signifiers are different. Flood images show submergence (for example, of fields, cars or houses) whereas drought is typically signified by barren land and cracked earth (or dead animals, as already mentioned).

Drought can affect entire regions or continents, including the cities within. For example, parts of southern and eastern Australia (including the capital city of Canberra) have experienced ‘very long-term rainfall deficiencies’ for a number of years (Australian National Climate Centre, 2009). The Australian government's Bureau of Meteorology has visually represented these deficiencies with coloured maps, using pink for ‘serious deficiency’, reddish pink for ‘severe deficiency’ and crimson for ‘lowest on record’ (Australian National Climate Centre, 2009). As often as not, however, icons of flood and drought imply an urban/rural dichotomy. A lucid example is a newspaper article on the impact of climate change called ‘wetter and wilder: the signs of warming everywhere’, which contains one photograph of a flooded city in Haiti and another of cracked earth in Australia (Vidal, 2008b).

Despite the prevalence of such iconography, alternatives do exist. Sun rather than rain appears in various guises. An apt illustration is the work of Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin, who chose to avoid a ‘didactic’ approach that ‘just makes people switch off’ by photographing the consequences of cities getting hotter in Northern Europe. The portfolio of work includes an image of sunbathers in Stockholm, Sweden, taken in 2006 (see Smyth, 2007).

Other photographs of sunbathers offer more explicit examples of the ‘inspirational’ approach to climate change communication discussed earlier. Flipside Vision, for example (which donates part of the proceeds to a coalition of NGOs called Stop Climate Chaos) describes the visuals in its 2009 calendar of climate change as ‘inspiring, dynamic imagery’ (Flipside Vision, 2009b). Rising sea levels are illustrated with one photograph of ice-breaking in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, and another of a Tuvaluan elder ‘relaxing’ in a hammock on a pebbled shoreline. The accompanying text warns of a global ‘danger of being submerged’ and explains that ‘low-lying island states such as Tuvalu (shown here) are especially vulnerable to climate change because major coastal settlements are located at or near present sea level’ (Flipside Vision, 2009a, March). The iconography of relaxation is thus designed to draw attention to the attendant message of vulnerability and danger. The photograph itself does not encapsulate the message in the same way as Tunick's visual juxtaposition of the hard and the soft, the cold and the warm.

A different type of alternative to the rain motif evokes sun indirectly, through accounts of unseasonably mild weather and premature seasons in the United Kingdom. One example is photographer Gary Braasch's shot of the ‘early leafing of oak trees’ in Southern England, which is explained as a consequence of ‘increasing temperatures during January to March over the past 41 years’ (Braasch, 2009).

A similar representation of the effects of global warming in the United Kingdom appeared in the press under the logo of the 10:10 campaign, in an article describing how a ‘hotter world’ is ‘pushing plants “out of synch” with seasons’ (Carrell, 2009). The report of a scientific study on global warming impacts in the United Kingdom began by anticipating the ‘delight of British gardeners’ when they discover that ‘by 2050 spring will start before Valentine's day’ (Carrell, 2009). The ‘delightful’ findings were accompanied by unthreatening photographs of a cherry tree with a bee, an anemone with a butterfly, and a bunch of purple grapes.

Such discursive and visual representations of delightful scenarios suggest a potential problem, one identified by an award-winning photographer cited already. In the words of Cobbing (quoted in Smyth, 2007), ‘making beautiful images out of something horrific is (sic) paradoxical…so you can't just make pretty pictures and think they'll work’. Cobbing continues that such pictures can have indirect value if the money generated by print sales is directed to climate science and further research. This recalls Flipside Vision's climate change calendar—the proceeds from which help to fund climate action campaigns.

The underlying issue is not whether images are aesthetically pleasing or not, but how ‘pretty pictures’ are used as strategies of climate change communication. A basic distinction needs to be drawn here between images like that of the Swedish sunbathers, which are meant to illustrate such ‘positive aspects of climate change’ as milder winters in Northern Europe (Franklin, quoted in Smyth, 2007) and Flipside Vision's reproduction of photographs designed to draw attention to discourses of vulnerability and danger.

Like the iconography of relaxation in the climate change calendar, such icons of early spring as cherry blossom and flowers can only be transformed into warning signs with accompanying text, as happened in the newspaper article just mentioned. The scientists who conducted the reported study were not celebrating early springs but rather issuing a warning: ‘that an ever earlier spring is likely to create significant problems for the plants, for birds and insects relying on them, and for farmers’ (Carrell, 2009).

What the image analysis thus far has suggested, in sum, is that climate change communication is indebted not only to images of the living but also to the current reality or future spectre of suffering and death. The endangered species are not only animals and people but also flora, fauna, insects and birds. The notable exceptions to this mode of representation are meteorological graphs of dangerous and extreme weather, such as coloured maps and globes.

The final section of the paper departs from iconographies of life and death by shifting the frame of reference from the causes, symptoms, and effects of climate change to some possible solutions. Mitigation and adaptation can take many forms, as discussed by Schmidt and Wolfe (2009). The focus here is renewable energy, as it relates most directly to the overall theme of part two, which is weather.

3.2. Icons of renewable energy

Europe is considering plans to spend more than £5 bn on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East…Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions. (McKie, 2007)

A blueprint for tackling global warming was put on the table yesterday by the EU…Under draft legislation unveiled by the European commission, 20% of Europe's energy mix is to come from renewable sources by 2020. (Traynor and Gow, 2008)

Weather is power. While extreme weather has the capacity to wreak havoc, the harnessing of solar, wind or tidal power can serve positive ends. As the quotes above demonstrate, renewable energy infrastructure ‘has received a lot of attention in the media’ because it's considered sustainable, thanks to its capacity to produce electricity without emitting ‘greenhouse gases or other air pollutants’ (Schmidt and Wolfe, 2009).

The following overview of renewable energy images, although brief, is sufficient to reinforce the salience of an earlier distinction between media reportage and media activism on climate change. The geopolitics of mapping is further illustrated as well. The last part of this section focuses exclusively on wind power, because evocative paintings and photographs of windmills are arguably the most inspirational (as well as potent) icons of renewable energy.

Taking solar-powered energy first, the conventional icon is photovoltaic cells or panels. Developed originally to provide electrical energy for space missions, solar technology can seem like an apt illustration of the impulse to treat climate change as a problem in need of a ‘technological fix’ (Zeman, 2009) but a mass of solar roof panels on the Google campus in Mountain View, California (Zeman, 2009) arguably gives a very different impression from photographs of solar panels on the roof of a single house. A solar energy company in the American state of Louisiana, for example, uses such images to signify cost efficiency, energy control, and empowerment. The relevant marketing slogans are ‘solar is practical and economical’ and ‘any control over your own home energy is empowering’. As an added bonus, the company reminds potential customers that ‘renewable energy in all forms is good for the future of the earth’(Louisiana Solar Guys, 2009).

If Louisiana Solar Guys stands at one end of the spectrum of commercial possibilities for solar energy (i.e. small scale, home-based solar electricity systems), then a scheme called Desertec (developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation) stands at the other. As reported in the Guardian, the plan is to construct a string of solar power plants across cheap land ‘scorched by the sun’ in northern Africa and the Middle East. The echo of nineteenth century imperialism is apparent in textual references to the project's aim, which is to ‘exploit that cheap land by use of a technique known as “concentrating solar power’” (McKie, 2007).

An even stronger echo of imperialist dreams of blank and empty exploitable lands comes from the map of the proposed solar power plants that accompanies both the article itself and its attendant photograph of solar panels in Munich. Entitled ‘Light from the Dark Continent’, the map recalls the ‘myth of the Dark Continent’ that was at its height during ‘the imperialist partitioning of Africa which dominated the final quarter of the nineteenth century’ (Brantlinger, 1985). If the title of the map was meant to be ironic, there was no evident signal to that effect to the reader.

An alternative (less global and imperialist) geopolitical imagination is signalled by reportage of a different ‘blueprint for tackling global warming’ (Traynor and Gow, 2008). The newspaper article includes a map produced by the European Commission to accompany its draft legislation on renewable energy. European countries are represented on the map as a series of overlapping circles, with each circle containing a couple of percentage figures. One is the country's renewable energy target for 2020. The other (which is coloured blue except in the UK's case, where the inner circle is red) is the percentage of the country's power provided by renewable sources in 2005. Almost 40% of Sweden's power was apparently supplied by renewable energy in 2005, whereas Malta's percentage was zero. The United Kingdom, with 1.3% from renewables, finished second from bottom of the league table. The map thus enables the viewer not only to compare and contrast at a glance but to ‘name and shame’ the worst offenders.

Such geopolitical maps, as suggested earlier, are among the repertoire of ways that political actors put pressure on each other in the policy realm. That particular map's target figure of 15% renewable energy for the United Kingdom by 2020 was mentioned again, and illustrated differently, in a further discussion of climate change policy reported in the Guardian. This time, the figure appeared in the caption to a photograph of wind turbines in an unspecified place. The frame of reference here was not an EU initiative but a Guardian conference on ‘the fight against “green” fatigue’ (The Guardian, 2008).

That photograph of wind turbines accompanied an article by the prime minister, Gordon Brown, in which he argued that the climate change challenge ‘inspires rather than daunts me’ (Brown, 2008). Immediately underneath, on the same page, various interested parties addressed the question of whether so-called climate change fatigue (the ‘everyone talks about it but no-one does anything’ syndrome) is really a problem.

The interplay of those three elements, the wind turbines photograph, the Prime Minister's column, and the mini debate, may well have been incidental but it was nonetheless telling. That is because the iconography of wind power falls elsewhere (i.e. beyond the parameters of the Guardian conference) into the category of inspiring images of climate change. Flipside Vision's climate change calendar, for instance, illustrates a discussion of wind with a contemporary photograph of a wind farm in Wales and an historic painting of a windmill in the Netherlands (Flipside Vision, 2009a: February). Other examples are the photograph of ‘modern windmills in the Netherlands’ in Schmidt and Wolfe (2009) and an advertisement for the Cooperative Group's claim to be ‘Britain's greenest high street retailer’. A crayon drawing of wind turbines is accompanied with the caption: ‘We sell over 20 million tins of beans a year. Just as well we have a wind farm’ (see the Guardian, 2008).

If the Cooperative's advertisement is an example of efforts to ‘sell’ renewable energy with both levity and something other than photographs, then Flipside Vision's juxtaposition of the old and the new, and Schmidt and Wolfe's presentation of a modern take on a traditional technology, suggest alternatives to the forward-looking, scenario-based temporality of so much climate change communication.

The fear-laden ‘catastrophe frame’ (Hulme, 2009) arguably ‘does not often stem from the science of climate change’ (O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). It stems instead from media reporting of forecasts, especially but not exclusively in UK tabloids, which research demonstrates can drip with fatalistic messages of the ‘we’re all going to die!’ variety. A 2002 article in the News of the World, for example, accompanied a report on climate change forecasts with the headline: ‘Just 100 Years to Go Folks!’ (quoted in Boykoff, 2008).

Whatever the source of that fatalism, the contrary message suggested by images of windmills is simple: ‘we’ve done it once and we can do it again’.

4. Conclusion

This paper has drawn on academic writings in multiple disciplines (i.e. psychology, geography, political studies, and climate change research) in exploring visual strategies of climate change communication. The aim has been to show how different images perform different kinds of work, and that those which work best for climate change cognition (such as climate change atlases) have limited use in regard to affect and behaviour. Furthermore, some of the images reviewed are designed to carry a message within them about the here and now of climate change (by providing documentary evidence of the symptoms and effects of climate change and/or a visual record of climate science) while others are meant to draw attention to what cannot by definition be seen, either scientific forecasts or contemporary disappearances.

The paper builds on existing concerns about the limited, paradoxical and/or counter-productive effects of an over-reliance on fear-laden images and messages in climate change communication. Newspapers, NGOs, photographers, artists and cartoonists are among the producers of so-called inspirational alternatives. Even if fewer people overall are moved or affected by such images, the hope is that a deeper level of engagement with the climate change issue, as well as commitment to behaviour change and political pressure, will result.

Although impelled by different geopolitical imaginations, the inspirational alternatives unite around a basic understanding of climate change as a future if not a contemporary problem. An important question raised by these alternatives is whether they can draw UK public attention to climate change without re-inscribing positive visions of early springs and glorious summers.

The foregoing image analysis uncovered a variety of possible answers. Images of enjoyment (such as a man on a beach in a hammock) accompany attendant discourses of danger and vulnerability. Those same discourses are signified visually and not just in text, but through humorous and whimsical images (the naked humans on a Swiss glacier, political cartoons). An image of human suffering (a man with his dead goats) is over-written with a polite call to action instead of alarmist predictions of catastrophe and apocalypse. Portraits of activists holding up pledges accompany messages about the importance of collective action and political pressure as well as individual behavioural change. Aesthetically pleasing images have indirect value when they allow organizations that use them to raise money for climate action and science and last but not least, icons of renewable energy (such as windmills) change the frame of reference from either business as usual or visions of apocalypse to possible strategies of mitigation.

All of those alternatives suggest an affirmative answer to the question in the title as well. They each represent efforts to move beyond polar bears as the iconic representation of climate change and visual sign of what Vidal (2008a) calls ‘the age of the melt’. The bigger question the paper raised was whether documentary photography per se, rather than particular kinds of images, is the underlying issue of concern. Photographers as well as academics have raised questions about the utility of single shots and ‘pretty pictures’ as well as ahistorical snapshots. The point is not that particular photographs are good or bad, right or wrong, but that complexity, invisibility, and change are inherently difficult to capture—especially at a single moment in time.

All visual images have the capacity to draw attention to messages contained either within the frame itself or in accompanying text. Photographs are no different, so to draw attention to their limitations is not to write off their value. The challenge is to respond positively to the opening exhortation to ‘start communicating constructively about climate change!’ (Maibach and Priest, 2009) and use visuals creatively, in ways that can address all three aspects of climate change communication (i.e. cognition, affect and behaviour) without enhancing a sense of fatalism and disengagement.


The author would like to thank Professor David Campbell at Durham University, and Eliot Whittington at Christian Aid, for their assistance in the production of this paper. I would also like to thank two anonymous referees, and the editors of this journal, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.