By Diego Arguedas Ortiz* – BBC Future
Images like that of a polar bear on a melting ice field are iconic. But in terms of getting people to act on climate change, they may be ineffective. Here’s why
We’ve all seen how powerful images can make abstract crises feel concrete. Think of the photographs of a Chinese man blocking a column of tanks a day after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing from napalm in 1972 or of 7-year-old Amal Hussain wasting away from hunger in Yemen. When done well, photographs help people around the world make sense of unseen disasters.
Now close your eyes and try to picture climate change – one of our generation’s most pressing crises. What comes to mind? Is it smoke coming out of power plants? Solar panels? A skinny polar bear?
That’s problematic, says psychologist Adam Corner, director of Climate Visuals, a project that aims to revitalise climate imagery. “Images without people on them are unable to tell a human story,” says Corner.
Climate change has an inherent image problem. While you can clearly visualise plastic pollution or deforestation, climate change has a less obvious mugshot: the gases that cause global warming, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are colourless, while impacts are slow-paced and not always visually striking.
So in the 1990s, reporters, politicians and others began using the sort of imagery that would help us begin to grasp the situation. That idea helped us understand the subject then. But it now needs revamping. For one thing, climate impacts are more evident now: take the frequency of wildfires, coastal flooding, droughts and heat waves.
But another reason to update climate change’s visuals is that, for the general public, ‘traditional’ climate images aren’t that compelling.
Wondering if there was a better way to tell climate change stories, Climate Visuals tested what effect iconic climate images – like that lonely polar bear – really had.
After asking people at panel groups in London and Berlin and through an online survey with over 3,000 people, the team concluded that people were more likely to empathise with images that showed real faces – such as workers installing solar panels, emergency respondents helping victims of a typhoon or farmers building more efficient irrigation systems to combat drought.
It also helped when photographs depicted settings that were local or familiar to the viewer, and when they showed emotionally powerful impacts of climate change.
Respondents in their study were also cynical of ‘staged’ pictures… and of images with politicians.
Climate Visuals’ quest is not entirely new. For over a decade, scholars have analysed the way NGOs and governments represent climate change visually, examined how the public reacts to different types of images and come up with new approaches. What it’s done differently, though, is to create the world’s largest climate image library based on those lessons.
And for better or for worse, it’s no longer that difficult to find human-led photographs of the consequences of climate change.
“The stories we need to tell are all around us in a way they were not 20 years ago when the polar bear became an icon,” says Corner. 19 November 2018.
Five myths about wildfires
Are wildfires a natural, if tragic, event – or are they getting worse with climate change? Would logging help decrease them? And can they be kept under control with forward planning? BBC Future debunks five common myths.
By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
Wildfires are currently raging through California, with thousands of people forced to flee their homes and dozens of residents killed. Earlier this year, a series of wildfires in the Greek coast killed 99 people in the deadliest wildfire worldwide since 2009. In July 2018, smoke from fires in Russia reached as far as North America. This is a new normal.
But as fires multiply around the world, so do questions about them – and misconceptions. Here are five common myths about wildfires – some of which can undermine our success in fighting them.
Myth #1: Regularly logging forests prevents forest fires
A common assumption is that logging, or removing some trees, would prevent fires. In fact, many forest experts say that logging is ineffective. This is because the tree remnants left over after logging, such as stumps and branches, provide a super-fuel for fire – one that is even drier (and more flammable) in the absence of a forest canopy.
There is plenty of science backing these claims. For instance, a recent study showed that burn severity tended to be higher in areas with higher levels of management. Scholars working on wildfire conservation have also rebuked arguments that logging protects endangered species from forest fires, a common argument in favour of tree removal; in fact, it seems that animals like the iconic spotted owl still benefit from a burned-out forest and that removing the trees could hurt them. Even post-fire logging is counterproductive and can lead to more fires.
A different practice is clearing entire areas of a forest, a common approach used by firefighters to prevent the fire from spreading.
Myth #2: There is nothing you can do to protect your property
Wildfires are powerful and threatening, but households can reduce their risk by taking action at home. The building itself should be the first concern. Houses with fire-resistant roofs stand a better chance of surviving a blaze. Owners also should remove combustible materials from around the structure, including leaves in gutters and rooflines.
Families can create a ‘defensible zone’ between their homes and their surrounding wilderness. This means clearing anything that could catch fire, like brush, dried leaves and wood piles within 30 feet (9m) of structures. When they are 30-100 feet (9-30m) away from homes, trees should have large distances between canopies – 12 feet (3.6m) of space between tops that are between 30-60ft (9-18m) from a home, and 6 feet (1.8m) of space for tops that are 60 feet (18m) away. This interrupts the fire’s path and slows its pace.
Myth #3: Wildfires are an inevitable fact of nature
While wildfires are a natural phenomenon, the extent and intensity to which they’re happening now are not – and one of the effects of climate change.
We saw fewer fires between 1930 and 1980, a period that coincided with cooler and moister conditions. But as the climate has become hotter and drier in the last four decades, the number of fires have increased. In only two years between 1980 and 1999 did wildfires burn more than 6 million acres (2.4m hectares) of US wilderness. But between 2000 and 2017, there were 10 years with burnt acreage above that threshold.
While you can’t point to climate change as causing any particular fire on its own, it does influence factors that help spark and spread fires, like major drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. As a result, scientists say that the increase of wildfires around the world, from Siberia to Portugal, is linked to climate change.
Myth #4: All wildfires are bad and must be quenched immediately
Fires have played a crucial role in ecosystems for millennia and life has evolved beside them: some beetles breed only in the heat of fires, pine cones germinate with periodical fires and cleared space from burnt trees allows for new plants to spring.
In fact, the benefits that many people now hope to achieve with logging or forest management – the clearing of dense woods – is naturally done by forest fires. The flames periodically consume smaller branches and trees, culling the forest which otherwise would otherwise serve as fuel.
By fighting wildfires relentlessly during the past century, we have prevented this ‘cleansing’: less than 1% of US fires are allowed to burn. This strategy works better when there are fewer wildfires – but in our current extreme conditions, pumping more money to fighting fires might have a diminishing rate of returns.
Myth #5: It is possible to eradicate (or control) all wildfires
As we have already seen, climate change, alongside other factors such as the spread of human settlements, is expected to increase wildfires, particularly in mid-to-high latitudes, in the coming decades. The tropics might see a decrease in fires, which might come as a relief for countries nearer the equator. But the rest of the globe would have to deal with an increasing number of them.
Some fires, like California’s Camp Fire, are too fast to be managed. Evacuation and relocation are the only reasonable responses. This leads to the question of whether communities like Paradise, which was destroyed almost entirely by the fire, should stay where they are – or move elsewhere.
Some experts are calling for a return to traditional indigenous fire knowledge to deal with the flames. As efforts to cull fires seem insufficient – and as fires are likely to only get worse – those are questions policymakers must face.
*Diego Arguedas Ortiz is a science and climate change reporter for BBC Future. He is @arguedasortiz on Twitter.