“It’s impossible to rely on a single symbol to represent a global problem with local effects,” says Manzo. A more relevant visual is extreme weather, she says. Images from last summer floods devastate the United Kingdomas well as the fleeing tourists heatwave in Greece And forest fires in Canada, show that it is increasingly difficult to externalize the problem. “Climate change is affecting us now. We need to find other ways to draw attention to the climate crisis,” says Manzo.
People, not polar bears
In the 2010s, association campaigns Oxfam And Christian help began to move away from traditional images, advocating “people, not polar bears.” Later, press offices followed suit, publication of editorials to move away from the default reliance on images of polar bears in their coverage of climate change.
In 2019, Fiona Shields, editor of the Guardian newspaper, said the newspaper would move away from polar bears as illustrations of the climate emergency, classifying them as “an obvious choice – but not necessarily appropriate“.
Shields cited tight deadlines, a limited photo database and the difficulty of depicting what can appear as an invisible crisis, as reasons why media coverage has relied heavily on traditional symbols such as the polar bear .
As media outlets began searching for alternative images, many turned to Climate Visuals, a climate photography resource founded in 2017.
The organization offers a image library of photos that media or nonprofit organizations can use for free or for a small fee. These comply with the seven principles of climate communicationthe first being “show real people”.
In a study driven by Climate visuals, 17 images were selected and tested in six focus groups in Germany, as well as in a representative survey of a sample of the German population. The study found that polar bear photos are iconic, but not compelling enough.
“It would be better to show a more human interaction with climate change, something people can relate to,” says Alastair Johnstone, climate visuals advisor at Climate Outreach.