The new BBC David Attenborough series Frozen Planet II has just hit our TV screens, with captivating and jaw-dropping pictures of wildlife living in frozen wildnernesses.
But as is now so often the case, nature programmes also have to deal with the negative impact of climate change as part of their narratives, which never makes comfortable viewing.
Since the early 2000s, viewers have been all too familiar with images of starving polar bears cut off from their natural food sources by seasonal ice pack melting happening earlier and earlier each year because of global warming.
But if you look at the imagery that now illustrates ‘climate change’ and the ‘climate emergency’ you can see how much it’s changed in the last 20 years.
While emaciated polar bears were the poster child of the 2000s, a search into Google images for ‘climate emergency’ now yields results dominated by images falling into two categories: angry expressions on the faces of people waving placards on marches and raging orange wildfires.
None of these images are subtle – they all convey anger and danger. And this is really part of the problem. The most easily found images on Google that represent our natural environment tell an unhelpful story that is more likely to demoralise and alienate people who need to be onside than inspire considered action or behavioural change.
Of course, generating strong emotional responses is a more reliable way of monetising this imagery and the same applies to pictures of people dealing with floods, droughts and wildfires.
Social media platforms like Instagram have also revolutionized the way we communicate visually for a decade. And it may not surprise you to learn that Giphy Inc., a basic search engine for memes, has been valued at US$600 million.
When a picture is worth a thousand words, if we want to reach people and change their relationship with the environment, we feel compelled to include incorporate images in the story.
However, deciding the appropriate images to inspire climate action is by no means easy for communications professionals.
Interestingly, there is an organisation called Climate Visuals whose mission is “putting people at the heart of addressing climate change”.
It makes available an image library of people around the world who are taking active steps to adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change on themselves and others.
These kinds of images are actually more useful for bringing people onside than demoralizing them with pictures of starving polar bears and wildfires but they are less likely to earn Google and the social media companies as much income. As a result, algorithms will penalise them in search result rankings.
But let’s also consider whether the power of images used to counter climate change is actually overstated. We could argue stories about climate change might be important to people in the media but, outside of the media industry, they make less difference than we imagine.
First, visual culture is a distraction that takes us away from thinking and dealing with every day. We could argue that emotive photography on Google, Instagram and Netflix boxsets are not intended to inspire us to act – they just encourage an essentially passive-yet-enraged engagement where we look on in horror then click quickly to something funny for some relief.
In small doses, it’s important to vent every now and then and feel the extremes of our anger and sadness about the things we care most strongly about. But it’s not the solution.
Much of the real impact dealing with climate change happens without emotive imagery, in the millions of small acts we all to help counter it such as sorting the household waste, buying second hand or recycled products or insulating our homes to cut domestic fuel use and carbon generation. These are not telegenic in themselves but they are absolutely essential.
So, we must distinguish between emotional responses to the climate emergency and the sober, rational, everyday action that demand large scale planning and infrastructure improvement to deliver the big results.
For businesses, it may mean fewer pictures of tree planting and more time backing up their ESG actions with proper financial resources, carbon accounting, and good governance that records the long-term impact of their company’s operations.
How we see and show the world counts, but how we act in it counts more, even if it will rarely make a front-page picture story.
By Sean Canty, Associate at Paternoster Communications