Why Mayors Should Focus on People Before Pandas and Polar Bears

As mayors and community leaders work to implement climate solutions, one of the greatest challenges is communicating with residents about the need to take action. To facilitate local government officials in their climate action, researchers have identified key strategies for talking about climate, as is outlined in ecoAmerica’s latest report Let’s Talk Climate. However, talking about climate is only one element, visuals are another. A recent report has now developed some key guidelines for choosing the most effective visuals for climate communication.

When considering which images to use, local leaders need to simply reflect on the families, residents, and citizens that make up their community. After all, mayors represent people, not polar bears. And the images that they choose should reflect the human side of climate change. The report outlines 5 key takeaways:

  1. Include people. Images should be simple, and feature only one or two individuals. Those in the picture should be looking into the lens of the camera—at whoever is viewing the photo, thereby making an intimate connection.
  2. The people featured should embody expertise. Alternatively, subjects should appear to be effected by the impacts and consequences of climate change.
  3. Photos should look authentic and embody real situations. Staged photos tend to be less effective.
  4. Show the consequences of climate change, but with caution. Imagery that is too bleak may inspire feelings of hopelessness. Images should be powerful, but not overwhelming. More effective images of consequences are multifaceted—showing consequences, coping, and solutions to climate change.
  5. Don’t focus on protesters. Most Americans do not self identify as climate activists, so featuring them in images may have a backfire effect.

Mayors and local leaders need to be up to date on the most effective methods for communicating about climate change. Images can be a powerful way to communicate, and any resource to expand the climate communication toolkit for elected and local leaders should be utilized. To access resources and join with other climate leaders, visit Path to Positive Communities and begin to lead your city in the right direction!

Beyond polar bears: Why climate images matter

By Robin Webster | Climate Change News | January 14, 2016

According to the old saying, a picture is worth a 1,000 words. If that’s true, then ranks of chimneys, melting glaciers, flooded towns, wind turbines, solar panels and polar bears are a big part of the climate change story we’re telling ourselves. All without knowing what they mean to the people that view them.

Back in the 1980s, green activists created the idea of associating climate change with images of polar bears. It was a clever move; research shows that we’re more likely to respond to pictures of one or two affected individuals in trouble than a crowd – the so-called ‘identifiable victim’ effect – and polar bears tend to be photographed singly or in pairs. We instinctively respond to their plight on the melting ice.

But a few decades later, the polar bear picture is a cliche, and the iconography of climate change feels stuck. Day by day journalists, activists, bloggers and educators face the problem of how to communicate climate change visually, with little practical help available. The difficulty of the choice reflect the tensions in climate change communication as a whole – an issue many perceive as intangible and abstract, simultaneously frightening and far away.

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