Visual imagery and climate change

by Yijing Zhang

A review by O’Neill (2014) studies the visual representation of climate change and public’s reaction on visual imagery. O’Neill begins by outlining three essential qualities of image that are different from text: analogical quality, a lack of an explicit propositional syntax, and indexicality (unlike words that are understood as a particular way of portraying the world, images are seen as direct representation of reality). These three qualities are related when O’Neill discusses three moments of communication cycles. The moment of production is about how climate visual are made, in what form, by and for whom, when and why. The moment of the visual text is about the context of the visual climate discourses. The moment of consumption is about how does the public read the visual climate discourses.

When reviewing the moment of the visual text, O’Neill looks at newspapers, TV and film, NGO, advertising and marketing, science, and art. In newspapers, not only have the number of climate change imageries increased, the contents of these imageries has also diversified. During the process of visualization, personification of climate imagery plays an important role. Personification allows many people, particularly politicians, to be the cover. Also, there is a difference of preference between newspapers owned by News Corporation and those under other ownerships. News Corporation prefers to use imagery of people, while other newspapers like to use visuals of climate impacts. In terms of TV and films, researchers find out that because visual images have the indexicality quality, documentary films aim to earn the trust from viewer and let them believe in the truthfulness of the films. Television has another advantage of portraying multiple visual in sequence so that comparisons can be made.

Non-governmental organizations, like Greenpeace, utilized visual imagery for campaigns, and according to media studies scholar Julie Doyle, they undergo five phases. In the first phase, images emphasize on dangers of global warming by describing future as catastrophe. The second phase shifts emphasis to causes of climate change and possible solutions. Phase three captures evidence of a warming world. Phase four focuses on geopolitics of oil. The last phase returns to the melting glaciers in polar areas. Businesses use visual marketing strategies to relate their products to climate issues. For instance, automotive companies claim to produce high fuel efficiency by using green and scenic landscapes as advertising images. In contrast to these different fields, scientists use distinct figures to convey more complex data using simpler images. In addition, art exhibition often uses climate change as a theme to arouse more attention to climate issues.

When considering the moment of consumption, O’Neill has three key findings in the social science perspective: images of climate impacts could promote feelings of salience but reduce one’s self-efficacy; images of future might enhance one’s self-efficacy; images of people can undermine feelings of saliency.

Reviewing the moment of production, probably the main scheme is 3D landscape visualization. It adds a vivid virtual to climate projections, enabling participants in interact with imagery of the landscape in future conditions. Although such mechanisms allow the public to have accurate perceptions of climate change, the visualization can be problematic.

O’Neill, S. J. and N. Smith (2014). “Climate change and visual imagery.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5: 73-87.

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