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What are the ethics of climate imagery?

October 5 2017

Adam Corner

For two very different reasons, we’ve thought a lot about images of climate impacts in the Climate Visuals team over the past month.

The first reason is the sequence of savage hurricanes endured by Cuba, Puerto Rico, Florida, that have wrought a barely believable level of devastation. Choose a metric: the millions evacuated; the billions lost economically; the hundreds dead; the thousands left homeless and desolate.

This is the grim reality of turbo-charged extreme weather events, on a platform of elevated sea levels and warm, volatile waters. Scientists have been quick to point out that storms like these are more likely and more destructive in a warmer world, and are increasingly comfortable attributing individual extreme weather events to climate change. But even if they weren’t, it takes a committed kind of disavowal to look at the images of flattened homes, obliterated infrastructure, and eviscerated communities, and not feel a gnawing sense of trepidation that this is what life in a climate changed world looks like.

And ‘what it looks like’ is key – climate change has proven an infamously intangible risk to pin down and face up to for many in the Western world. But this is rapidly changing, as extreme weather starts to hit home with increasing regularity and ferocity ‘here and now’.

The second reason we’ve been thinking about images of climate impacts is because we’ve just completed the first two (in a series of six) international masterclasses, to engage a range of communicators, campaigners, practitioners, journalists and researchers with the Climate Visuals approach. With a range of guest speakers providing expert perspectives on climate imagery, we’ve been delivering interactive tasks and presentations in London and then Salzburg – and a key topic of conversation has been the way in which images of climate impacts are received by the public.

Masterclass participants discussing images

Masterclass participants discussing images. Image credit: Climate Outreach

In our Climate Visuals research, we found that although images of climate impacts were emotionally powerful, they could also be overwhelming for people, and generate a sense of hopelessness. One of our seven principles recommends showing climate impacts alongside more constructive images of ‘solutions’ to climate change, to ensure that people don’t switch off in the face of a traumatic image of a drought, flood, or storm-ravaged town.

Large scale image of deforestation, close up image of man working on reforestation project

Compelling negative images (deforestation) work best when paired with concrete actions (reforestation). Image credit and licensing information: View this image in our gallery (left); View this image in our gallery (right)

Another of the Climate Visuals principles focuses on the importance of showing ‘local but serious’ climate impacts, to connect with places and people that the viewer can identify with, but without undermining the seriousness of the issue.

The images emerging from the North Atlantic hurricane season certainly ‘tick the box’ for this second recommendation – they show extremely serious climate impacts, and are ‘local’ (for a US audience at least). But there’s something about the idea of people’s suffering ‘ticking the box’ as a communication tool that doesn’t feel quite right.

Street flooded in Yorkshire, England

Show serious but local impacts, such as this image of flooding in Yorkshire, England. View this image in our gallery

So what’s the right balance?

On the one hand, there’s the position that extreme weather events are not the time to talk about climate change, that it’s insensitive or callous to raise this topic. But that means that one of the few tangible aspects of climate change – how extreme weather affects communities – is somehow off-limits for campaigners, even though the aim of making the link is to prevent other communities from experiencing worse in the future.

Our position for Climate Visuals – in line with wider guidance on this that we’ve developed at Climate Outreach – is to be sensitive, but not to shy away from making the link. We’re sharing images of the hurricanes as they happen, but not analysing them – somehow explaining how they can be ‘used’ in communication feels like a step too far when people are without electricity and rebuilding their homes. But in the longer-term, we believe that these kinds of images are essential tools for showing to the world what climate change looks like – and that’s something that we should feel proud to do, not apologise for.

There’s an analogy with how imagery is used in campaigns on international development, where the conversation about the ‘ethics’ of images used to show people in poverty has been going on for much longer. In that sector, there are widely-followed ethical guidelines. Do we need something similar for climate change, as the number of ‘victims’ of climate impacts grows and the need to portray them in an empowering rather than exploitative light becomes greater?