On Shooting Polar Bears: Communicating Climate Visually

On Shooting Polar Bears: Communicating Climate Visually

When you fly to Anchorage and walk through Ted Stevens International Airport you are greeted by two large stuffed polar bears. You may never get to see polar bears in the wild, but when you see the taxidermy in the Anchorage airport you will realize just how big and scary they are and how much lower on the food chain we are.

Native Alaskans respect them, but they also fear them. Earlier Arctic sea ice melt is bringing record numbers of polar bears on land and for longer periods of time near Inupiat villages like Kaktovik. And it is increasing human-bear conflict and fears for villagers’ safety.  

I liken it to our respect and fear of mountain lions that occasionally terrorize suburbanites around the outer edges of Seattle as our growth and development invades their territory. 

We certainly don’t make cougars our mascot for anti-sprawl campaigns. Save the cougars that might attack your children when you are not watching. Stop sprawl, you are fragmenting mountain lion habitat! No, we focus on the multiple benefits of urban density or other messaging that focuses on the benefits to people and local communities.

And this is the model that we should apply to climate change.

Academics have entered the debate and are echoing the growing chorus of climate communicators arguing that we no longer should use the polar bear as the face of climate change. Iconic climate change visuals like stranded polar bears are ineffective for two reasons, explains climate image researcher Dr. Kate Manzo of the University of Auckland. The images “make (climate change) seem far away in time and space, and are 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.”[1]

We research our messages to death. We shell out $30,000 to pollsters to make sure we are using the right words. Are we also testing pictures? Rarely.

Today an impressive body of research into the cognitive science behind how people process images shows that pictures are no different than words in this respect. The wrong choice of a picture can turn someone off just as much, if not more, than the wrong choice of words. The most aesthetic picture is not always the most effective, just as the most intelligent-sounding word is not always the most effective. Here are just a few nuggets that we can apply to our work as we think of the most effective ways to communicate climate change visually:

  • We engage immediately with faces, especially baby faces. We never look away from people making direct eye contact in photos or video. We are biologically programmed to watch people’s faces to know what they are feeling.
  • Highly disturbing images are a different story, however. Picture climate impacts among the most destitute in Bangladesh. If the viewer is distressed by a photo, self-preserving behavior dominates. If they think they can’t respond to the problem or it creates a helpless hopeless feeling, then coping, rather than problem-solving, kicks in. That is of no use to NGOs that want their supporters to feel empowered and able to help and make a difference.

  • But, if done right, when it comes to famines and natural disasters linked to climate change, showing a single victim that people can identify with and care about works much better in fundraising than showing a crowd of victims. As the saying goes, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is just a statistic. As an individual viewer, you are saying to yourself, “I can save one person, not this whole group.” 

Short of sending everyone back to college to hit the stacks, here are two easy rules of thumb that we use at Resource Media. The first we alluded to earlier: use local, not global examples.

Distant problems, such as the plight of the polar bears, or ones of a global scale, rarely galvanize individual or local action; e.g., I got a lotta problems, that’s too far away, it doesn’t affect me, I’ll let a hard-core animal lover deal with that. Instead, it is far more effective to use images that connect the dots to the local, felt impacts of climate change – such as extreme weather events like endless drought, heat waves, epic windstorms, wildfires.

But, this brings us to our second rule of thumb: always apply these local impact visuals in combination with positive, hopeful solutions-oriented images and icons of clean energy. Fear-based imagery alone – trying to frighten people into action – does not galvanize people. The best visual campaigns[2] tell the stories of those affected by climate change on the ground while offering a hopeful, alternative vision. This allows people to feel that they have control over their situation or their future.

One of the best examples I have come across of instigating action on climate comes from the work over the past four years of a diverse team of anthropologists, ecologists, artists and communications specialists from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. They launched a visual storytelling approach to community organizing, education, and behavior change aimed at increasing citizen engagement in climate mitigation efforts under the city’s Climate Action Plan.

What did they do? Sure, they did show people photos of the infamous snowstorm in Chicago that stranded people in cars for over 24 hours to remind them that climate change has already hit Chicago. But, one of the most effective outreach tools the team deployed was a series of visual collages featuring photographs of existing neighborhood examples of climate action rooted in the city’s diverse cultures. The team identified local practices that community members were already engaged in such as energy efficiency, climate-friendly gardening and recycling. Seeing photos of these practices and hearing that they benefit the climate often helped people see that they are already taking many actions that can be considered climate action.

It personalized an issue that previously seemed distant and impersonal to many of them, helping them to self-identify as climate activists (you have to self-identify as such before you will do bigger actions like calling your legislator or congressman on a climate bill), and served as a springboard for ever increasing inspiration toward and engagement in climate action.

These photo collages and other visual tools, combined with stories collected by community leaders trained by professional storytellers and assembled in video format highlighted climate actions as integral to residents’ lives, “literally changing the face of climate change from the polar bear to your next door neighbor,” as the team explained, and integral as well to surmounting language and cultural barriers. And, most importantly, the project follows the most basic message maxim of “Start where they (your audience) are.”

And that is not in the Arctic for most of us.


Liz Banse leads Resource Media’s Visual Communications research project. @RMedia, @girrlgonegreen

Photos courtesy of Resource Media via Dreamstime.

[1] Manzo.K, “Beyond polar bears? Re-envisioning climate change,” Meteorological Applications, Wiley-Blackwell, May 2010, DOI: 10.1002/met.193 

[2] “Fear Won’t Do It”: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations,” S. O’Neill, S. Nicholson-Cole, Science Communications (2009), Volume: 30, Issue: 3, Pages: 355-379.