Climate communicators told: Don’t use protest pictures

Most people don’t identify with environmentalists, surveys show, so react cynically to images of demonstrations

Images like this resonate with existing campaigners but leave most people cold (Pic: South Bend Voice/Flickr)

Images like this resonate with existing campaigners but leave most people cold (Pic: South Bend Voice/Flickr)

By Megan Darby

If you want to inspire people to act on climate change, for goodness’ sake don’t use a photo of long-haired hippies waving a banner.

Such images “attracted widespread cynicism” in surveys, according to guidance launched by Oxford-based think tank Climate Outreach on Thursday.

“Most people do not feel an affinity with climate change protesters, so images of protests may reinforce the idea that climate change is for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’,” the report said.

Instead, researchers recommend photos of real people affected by impacts of global warming like floods, as more emotionally powerful. These should be coupled with information about potential climate solutions, so the viewer does not feel overwhelmed.

They have set up an online gallery for researchers, campaigners and journalists to find suitable images.

Images showing ordinary people hit by extreme weather like flooding are powerful, says report (Flickr/Mathias Eick EU/ECHO)

Images showing ordinary people hit by extreme weather like flooding are powerful, says report (Pic: Flickr/Mathias Eick EU/ECHO)

Iconic subjects like polar bears, smokestacks and razed forests help people to swiftly identify something as a climate story, meanwhile, but may be ineffective at engaging those who don’t already care.

The report explained: “A decision made by activists in the 1980s to associate climate change with one iconic animal – the polar bear – has provided a simple visual shorthand for the issue.

“But it has also reinforced the impression that climate change is a distant problem, and arguably ‘closed down’ the climate discourse around a concept that is remote from people’s day-to-day lives.”

The principles for choosing the best images were based on an online survey in the US, UK and Germany, plus discussion groups and informal interviews with experts.

Read more on: Climate Politics