Images like that of a polar bear on a melting ice field are iconic. But in terms of getting people to act on climate change, they may be ineffective. Here’s why.

We’ve all seen how powerful images can make abstract crises feel concrete. Think of the photographs of a Chinese man blocking a column of tanks a day after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing from napalm in 1972 or of 7-year-old Amal Hussain wasting away from hunger in Yemen. When done well, photographs help people around the world make sense of unseen disasters.

Now close your eyes and try to picture climate change – one of our generation’s most pressing crises. What comes to mind? Is it smoke coming out of power plants? Solar panels? A skinny polar bear?

That’s problematic, says psychologist Adam Corner, director of Climate Visuals, a project that aims to revitalise climate imagery. “Images without people on them are unable to tell a human story,” says Corner.

And that kind of imagery might be a big part of why so few of us are prioritising climate action.

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Climate change has an inherent image problem. While you can clearly visualise plastic pollution or deforestation, climate change has a less obvious mugshot: the gases that cause global warming, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are colourless, while impacts are slow-paced and not always visually striking.

So in the 1990s, reporters, politicians and others began using the sort of imagery that would help us begin to grasp the situation. That idea helped us understand the subject then. But it now needs revamping. For one thing, climate impacts are more evident now: take the frequency of wildfires, coastal flooding, droughts and heat waves.

But another reason to update climate change’s visuals is that, for the general public, ‘traditional’ climate images aren’t that compelling.

Wondering if there was a better way to tell climate change stories, Climate Visuals tested what effect iconic climate images – like that lonely polar bear – really had.

After asking people at panel groups in London and Berlin and through an online survey with over 3,000 people, the team concluded that people were more likely to empathise with images that showed real faces – such as workers installing solar panels, emergency respondents helping victims of a typhoon or farmers building more efficient irrigation systems to combat drought.

It also helped when photographs depicted settings that were local or familiar to the viewer, and when they showed emotionally powerful impacts of climate change.

Respondents in their study were also cynical of ‘staged’ pictures… and of images with politicians.

Climate Visuals’ quest is not entirely new. For over a decade, scholars have analysed the way NGOs and governments represent climate change visually, examined how the public reacts to different types of images and come up with new approaches. What it’s done differently, though, is to create the world’s largest climate image library based on those lessons.

And for better or for worse, it’s no longer that difficult to find human-led photographs of the consequences of climate change.

“The stories we need to tell are all around us in a way they were not 20 years ago when the polar bear became an icon,” says Corner.

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Diego Arguedas Ortiz is a science and climate change reporter for BBC Future. He is @arguedasortiz on Twitter.

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