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Media coverage of the IPCC 1.5C report: a Climate Visuals analysis

November 28 2018

Robert Van Waarden

Does a corn cob suffice to represent the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced? The BBC seems to think so.

The Washington Post chose a dog as their symbol of 'climate alarm'.

Does an image of a dog silhouetted by a setting sun help to sound the climate alarm? According to the Washington Post, it does.

The IPCC Working Group II co-chair Debra Roberts described the latest IPCC publication (SR15), colloquially known as the ‘1.5 degrees’ report, as “a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency,” and yet The Sun illustrate it with yet another polar bear...

Coverage from The Sun

When the IPCC released the 1.5C report, the Climate Visuals team looked at a set of major media outlets and NGOs, to get a sense of how they had illustrated their coverage in the week following the report’s publication. What we saw disappointed us.

The outlets we chose were based on readership, accessibility to English-language search engines and geographical distribution. This was not an exhaustive list or a scientific study but it does give a useful snapshot of the landscape. Altogether we examined 18 media outlets and 11 NGOs.

On the NGO side the coverage was surprisingly sparse. One project that held potential was 350.org’s 'People's Dossier'. But while comprehensive, relevant in terms of text and information, and clearly seeking to reach out beyond the ‘usual suspects’, visually it still focused on images of activists and other generic climate imagery. We know from our Climate Visuals research that protest imagery can have the effect of turning off an audience, but we also know that knowing your audience is crucial. So we will give the NGOs the benefit of the doubt, and assume they were keeping their audience in mind with this choice.

The two media outlets that used more human-driven narratives in their imagery were the New York Times and The Guardian. Some of these images were striking and drew direct connections between the report and society.

The New York Times used a more human-focused narrative 

Does a corn cob suffice to represent the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced?

But the fact remains much of the mainstream media is using imagery that does not even include a person (or people). There were icebergs, setting suns, smokestacks, parched earth, and of course polar bears. The BBC deserves special mention here for using carrots, coral fish, a cow, misty trees, a corn cob, and a white sandy beach.

This is terribly disappointing. When presented with a wide ranging report that includes evidence of how climate change will impact on all aspects of society and the natural world, the image choice is limitless. But time and time again, editors and communicators dropped the ball.

Visualizing climate change appropriately is crucial

If we can’t appropriately visualize climate change around what is one of the most important and comprehensive reports on climate change ever authored, how can we expect our readers to respond and take action?

Our work at Climate Visuals continues to be necessary and we still believe that together we can create a more diverse and compelling visual language for climate change. Going forward, we hope to be working more closely with decision makers in the media to ensure that the principles behind the Climate Visuals research are being taken up by one of the key gateways to climate imagery accessible to the general public: the world’s leading media outlets.