Beyond polar bears - finding a new way to communicate climate change

Beyond polar bears - finding a new way to communicate climate change

( -- Fear-laden images of a planet in chaos are a real turn off when it comes to changing public perception about climate change, according to research by Newcastle University.

And even the cute, cuddly polar bear icon could have had its day, according to Dr Kate Manzo, who says it’s time for climate change to get a new look.

Her research into climate change communication is published in the current edition of Meteorological Applications and reviews the efforts of journalists, campaigners and politicians to engage the public with the issue against a backdrop of increased scepticism.

Dr Manzo found that many climate change images either make people feel it is inevitable and they cannot do anything to help, or that it is largely irrelevant to them as it is so far into the future.

“The images we see on daily basis can have a dramatic effect on our knowledge and understanding of climate science, our level of concern and ultimately whether we are motivated to take action or not,” she said.

“Different images and framings of climate change work differently and resonate more powerfully with some audiences than others. It is therefore impossible to find a single image which connects with everyone, which is why undue reliance on a limited set of images or framings is problematic.

“Many iconic representations of climate change make it 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,” said Dr Manzo.

“We might think an image is extremely effective because it raises our awareness, but it can be silmutaneously ineffective if it makes us less likely to act upon it.”

Polar bears, the ‘serial killers of the Arctic’, became the rather unlikely cuddly face of climate change, and this is most evident in the story of Knut, the cub from Berlin Zoo whose image was used so successfully for political and commercial campaigns.

“Polar bears score highly in the so called identifiable victim stakes,” said Dr Manzo. “Findings suggest that the image of a lone polar bear - like Knut - wins hands down when it comes to provoking feelings of pity and concern as well as charitable giving.”

However, these standard images have a limited effect, because even when they raise awareness and elicit emotion they tend to only appeal to people who are wildlife lovers already, with little or no impact outside of this group.

Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes are also indicative of the ‘fear appeals’ which have been shown to prevent meaningful engagement.

Dr Manzo’s research has uncovered a variety of alternative visualisations of climate change as well as substitutes for documentary photography as the dominant visual form of climate change communication.

She suggests that icons of extreme weather and renewable energy are viable alternatives as faces of climate change, with images such as windmills providing an inspirational approach to a climate change message which is inherently difficult to visualise.

Icons of renewable energy have already been used successfully by newspapers and companies such as the Co-op’s advert in 2008 with its crayon drawing of wind turbines accompanied by the caption: ‘We sell over 20 million tins of beans a year. Just as well we have a wind farm.’

Windmills and wind turbines are effective if they change people’s reference point from either business as usual or visions of apocalypse to possible pro-active solutions. The underlying message is simple, effective and encouraging: ‘we’ve done it once and we can do it again’.

“The challenge is to use visuals creatively in ways that can address all three aspects of communications - cognition, affect and behaviour - without enhancing fatalism and disengagement,” said Dr Manzo. “Inspirational alternatives may initially move fewer people, but ultimately they may create a deeper level of engagement with the climate issue, as well as provoking a real commitment to behavioural change.”

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More information: Manzo.K, “Beyond polar bears? Re-envisioning climate change,” Meteorological Applications, Wiley-Blackwell, May 2010, DOI: 10.1002/met.193
Provided by Newcastle University
Citation: Beyond polar bears - finding a new way to communicate climate change (2010, May 26) retrieved 18 September 2019 from
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May 26, 2010
Remarkable. Looking for new ways of "raising awareness", as if those familiar cliches -- "save the children", "tipping point", "worse than we thought" -- haven't been abused enough.

May 26, 2010
In other words, don't bother with presenting the science, just find more powerful propaganda images to raise emotional support.

May 27, 2010
hahahahahhhaahahhaaaa i love it! the evolution of climate change propaganda. pretty inconsiderate of the polar bears to keep multiplying instead of drowning themselves to assist the marxists, commies, and anarchists in destroying western civilization. i guess polar bears just arent team players.

May 27, 2010
"Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes are also indicative of the ‘fear appeals’ which have been shown to prevent meaningful engagement."

those images "prevent meaningful engagement" because the bear is not stranded on the ice floe doc. polar bears can swim over a hundred miles without rest so its pretty obvious that the good doctors exasperation comes from the fact that the agw alarmists misinformation war on the public is backfiring.

May 27, 2010
Beyond polar bears - finding a new way to communicate climate change

Especially since all the "polar bears in distress" photos were, and are, FAKED and AGW is a FRAUD against intelligence and western Civilization (given that China and India aren't going to participate in there own destruction).

May 27, 2010
If these comments about commies and marxists and whackos are an indication of the rationality of discourse, it's obviously being carried on at an emotional level anyway, so why bring a knife to a gunfight?

Emotion is the gun, and the people who want to wish global warming away already acknowledge that they are losing the scientific battle, so as quickly as possible they invoke the image of scientific dishonesty, and evil spooks like commies.

I'm a scientist, I agree with the extrapolations from the evidence, and as the evidence grows, I agree more. I also study cognitive science, or how people think, moralize and make action decisions, and I fully recognize from the ever-accumulating evidence that the global warming effort must be aimed at emotional triggers because that's how the corporations have framed the battle, for the same reasons they wish ALL thinking about the role of rapacious corporatism to be done, emotionally and in response to THEIR framing.

The future frightens us.

May 27, 2010
"Evidence grows"? It seems that you didn't dig into the problem hard enough, or simply lack critical thinking. If your education included physics lab you should learn that fabricating results is easy, and sometimes is very tempting. If your ever wrote a complex modeling program you should be very skeptical about its predictive power. The fact that you are so easily spooked indicates that you lack rational thinking, so I challenge that you deserve scientist title. Is your degree in soft sciences, by any chance?

May 28, 2010
there is no "ever-accumulating evidence". the evidence is accumulating in the other direction. you are a shill for the ever-shrinking agw cult. your a hack. i would bet money that your not even a scientist hack, just an average ordinary everyday hack.

May 30, 2010
How about calm, cool logic backed by a preponderance of the evidence? Take for instance the National Academies recent set of reports ( I guess they're a bunch of hacks too. It seems that any discussion of the topic, whether emotional or rational, is a turn off to some people. Maybe if we just ignore the whole thing it will all go away and life could be like Disney World. My guess is that people who dogmatically deny the possibility of climate change risk are free riders who see some kind of threat to their 'way of [free riding] life' from this topic. And to those who suggest that environmentalists 'stop breathing' or 'kill themselves', it would definitely benefit the world more if the over-consumers go first.

May 30, 2010
Looking for newer, more effective ways of selling the "climate change" tent revival fraud now that the public has got wise to the old ones. :-D

May 30, 2010
I'm a scientist, I agree with the extrapolations from the evidence, and as the evidence grows, I agree more.

Freeman Dyson is a scientist. Freeman Dyson disagrees with your assessment of the evidence. Dyson, perhaps the smartest person never to win a Nobel Prize? Dyson, who actually worked in Climate Science at Oak Ridge.


Nothing personal. On perhaps any issue, I'll take Dyson's word over yours.

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