Putting a Human Face on Climate

Polar bears are cool. They thrive in a world of ice. They can beat up a grizzly bear. And their cubs are cute. But even as the polar bear’s world tragically continues to melt away, it’s long past the time to retire them as the most dominant face of climate disruption. The iconic image of a polar bear floating on an ice floe has compelled some people to take action, but the faraway fate of one of the only species that treats human as a food source unfortunately leaves a lot of folks relatively cold. What’s needed is to make the issue personal and that requires a human face—and one that that doesn’t have A.G. as initials.

Whether it’s Gandhi in robes on his salt march or Julia Butterfly riding out a winter storm in an old-growth redwood tree, it really helps a movement for change to have a human face on the issue. People identify with people much more than they do with a spotted owl. And the face doesn’t have to belong to a famous person or an activist: it can be a black woman refusing to give up her bus seat, a dusty and desperate migrant mother out of luck or a Napalmed 9-year-old girl running naked from the horrors of war.
This is not a new idea. There have been books, photo exhibits, documentaries as well as pleas from those most immediately threatened that have all called for putting a human face to climate change. But despite these efforts, when most Americans think about the issue, the first person who still comes to mind is Al Gore.
The face of climate change should be a face that people can relate to and be inspired by, and that rules out politicians no matter how much good they do in and out of office. Gore may be a Nobel Prize winner, but he will always be seen as a representative of the Democratic Party and that inclines a large number of Americans to disregard pretty much everything that he says. And while it’s not essential to have everyone as part of the climate movement, it needs to include much more than the 47 percent of the public who believe (according to Mitt Romney) “that government has a responsibility to care for them.”
Moreover, Gore is a wealthy white male Baby Boomer and the environmental movement overall suffers from the perception that environmentalism is a pastime of the elite. Obviously, climate disruption affects everyone, and the image(s) needs to somehow portray that.
There is no shortage of people affected by climate change, but perhaps this is part of the problem, that no single face or set of faces can represent a truly global challenge—while some people might relate to islanders fleeing no-longer inhabitable islands, it may take a skier without snow to reach others.
There are some other tricky issues with conveying this issue visually. The pace of climate disruption, while geologically speedy, makes it generally hard to see. And while extreme weather events are quite visible, trying to tie a single storm, no matter how extreme, to global weirding can bring about more heat than light. Other times, the role of climate disruption in riveting events goes largely unacknowledged (such as Arab Spring) and thus makes for a way-too-complicated visual story.
Also, given that fear, hopelessness and being overwhelmed are common human responses to the issue, portrayals of climate victims may only exacerbate such emotions. On the other hand, depictions of those who’ve come up with solutions may fail to deliver if they or their remedy is too wonky or they haven’t gone on a hero’s journey and triumphed in the face of adversity.
Whether climate hero, refugee or somewhere in between, the right face(s) will capture the imagination of the media as well as various segments of the public—people will repost it because they’re moved, not just because they want to move others. This sometimes occurs through happenstance, but normally it takes a lot of strategy and effort, so we at Climate Access want to hear from practitioners who have been trying to put a human face on climate.
What is and isn't working for you in trying to put a human face on climate? Are there images that you wish you had but don’t? What are your ideas on how best to disseminate and popularize images that would make humans the face of climate?
Please let us know and we will share your advice and those of other experts in an upcoming post. Please also send examples of effective images.
We have to give climate change a human face – it is not all about 'sinks,' 'emission trading schemes' and technology. Climate change is about people, children, families and of our relationship with the world around us. To Inuit it is a question of our very survival as a hunting people and a hunting culture. Our human rights – to live our traditional way – are being violated by human-induced climate change." — Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair, Inuit Circumpolar Conference, November 2004