More windmills, less polar bears - scientist considers best way to communicate climate change

Symbols of hope rather than those of environmental catastrophe make more effective tools when trying to engage the public in the environmental debate, according to scientists researching climate change communication.

Endangered species? Polar bears might not be the stock image for climate change for much longer

Endangered species? Polar bears might not be the stock image for climate change for much longer

Dr Kate Manzo of Newcastle University has been looking at the ways journalists, campaigners and politicians try to get the message across and which have been the most effective.

"There have been various efforts to put a face on the climate change issue," said Dr Manzo.

"Communicators need to move away from the traditional images of polar bears or fear-laden imagery to find new, inspirational motifs to engage people with climate change.

"My research has uncovered a variety of possibilities - such as windmills as icons of renewable energy - as well as alternatives to documentary photography as the dominant form of climate change communication.

"A recent study of American public perception showed that fewer people are convinced of the reality of climate change, and of those that are only 36% attribute it to human activity.

"This shows the variance of levels of climate change knowledge and understanding, which effects how people behave in response.

"It also highlights the need for strategies to boost the cognitive and behavioural elements of climate change engagement without resorting to methods such as fear appeals that are, at best, a double edged sword."

In her study Manzo looked at the effectiveness of symbols of fear and pity - such as stranded polar bears or human disaster victims - against those that were more inspirational.

"Visually pleasing images have indirect value when they allow organisations that use them to raise money for climate action and science," she said.

"Icons of renewable energy, such as windmills, change the frame of reference from either business as usual or visions of apocalypse to possible strategies of mitigation."

David Gibbs



Energy efficiency & low-carbon
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