How to Use Visuals when Communicating about Climate Change
  • 03 May 2021
  • 3 Minutes to read
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How to Use Visuals when Communicating about Climate Change

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Visual aids are an important tool in communications. They can improve audience understanding and memory, better connect your audience with an idea, appeal to their imaginations, and invoke an emotional response. However, sometimes using the wrong image can be worse than using no image at all. It might improve your audience’s memory of your message, but that memory might be a negative one, rather than a positive one.

Using the right visuals when communicating about climate change is especially important because it can be a polarizing issue—many people tie their identities to carbon-intensive jobs or lifestyles, like farming or mining, and see climate action as a threat to that identity. Climate Outreach, an organization dedicated to supporting public engagement with climate change using evidence-based communication strategies, has identified seven core principles for using visuals when communicating about climate change.

  1. Show real people. Research shows that photos with people or animals are always received better, but they prefer authentic, rather than staged photos. Try using photos of just one or two real people, rather than group photos or photos that seem fake.

  2. Tell new stories. Although classic visuals associated with climate change, like polar bears on ice or smokestacks, can be good aids to communicate that your message is about climate change, these photos can also prompt cynicism and fatigue. Try using visuals to tell new stories that audiences might not have seen before, like a different or unique face of climate action, or use humour to tell your story.

  3. Show climate change causes at scale. People don’t always make the connection between climate change and their daily lives, like in photos of a family in a vehicle. If they do make the connection, they might also get defensive about their own behaviour. Instead, show the problem at a wider scale, like a congested highway full of vehicles.

  4. Climate change impacts can be emotionally powerful. Research shows that photos that convey the impacts of climate change get a more powerful emotional response than photos of climate change causes or solutions. However, that isn’t always a good thing. These photos can also give audiences a feeling of hopelessness or helplessness, so make sure that photos of climate change impacts are paired with a solution or action that people can take to mitigate those impacts.

  5. Show local (but serious) impacts. Audiences will respond better to visuals of climate change impacts when they are local - it gives them an understanding of how the issue is relevant to them. However, you have to be careful to make the connection to the bigger picture on climate change, and show an impact that’s serious enough for audiences to want to take action.

  6. Be careful with protest imagery. Generally speaking, the only people who respond well to images of environmental protestors are people who already consider themselves environmental activists. For others, protest images draw more cynicism and can reinforce the idea that climate action isn’t something ‘we all’ do—it’s only for ‘those’ environmentalists.

  7. Understand your audience. How people respond to climate change visuals can vary depending on their political cleanings and feelings about climate change. It’s important to know who your audience is and how they feel about climate change so you can tailor your communications accordingly. For example, people who identify as politically right tend to have less emotional response to photos of climate change impacts than others, but they respond positively to photos about climate change solutions.

Wondering where to find appropriate images for your communications? Check out Climate Visuals, a library of climate change images that were curated by Climate Outreach and align with these principles.

Looking for more information? Climate Outreach also has a guide on communicating effectively with politically centre-right populations on household energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies:

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They also have a guide on communicating the Canadian clean energy transition, including the DOs and DON’Ts on using visuals to tell your story:

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Need to visualize the scope of GHGs? Head over to our carbon equivalents caluculator.


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