Images of damage from extreme weather may lower political support for climate action

A picture might be worth a thousand words -- and still not convince people that climate change is happening.

Recent research suggests that images of devastating floods, cracked fields of earth and roaring hurricanes might be less effective at conveying the emotional impacts of extreme weather than media outlets think. They can be too scary, or of places too far away. Others might cause a yawn.

Either way, it's likely that many pictures of disasters are tossed in the psychological trash can, even as extreme weather events seem to be increasingly damaging to communities and economies.

"We concluded that you couldn't use these images to engage people on the issue of climate change because they mostly are of helplessness," said Brigitte Nerlich, a social science professor at the University of Nottingham.

She and a colleague studied 118 pictures published with news articles about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report on extreme weather. For two days after the report's release in November 2011, news outlets published 25 photos of floods, 10 showing hurricanes, and others depicting drought, melting ice and heat waves.


Past research has shown that images can have an emotional impact on their viewers, stirring up feelings that can help people engage on an issue or drive them away. People may respond with compassion, fear, guilt, vulnerability or courage. The "emotional value" of the pictures of weather events probably sent their audience scurrying, Nerlich said.

Flooding is the costliest disaster in the world, and media outlets pictured it heavily after the IPCC special report. The images tended to portray an "us or them" message, the research says, by showing either inundated Asian cities, in which people grimaced but carried on, or flood-soaked Westerners who appeared distraught.

Humans not in control; that's scary

Either one could disengage its viewer. Showing a faraway place might make the threat seem distant, while zeroing in on a deluged American woman surrounded by murky water might prompt a sense of helplessness.

"While visual representations of extreme weather in developing countries tend to depict the resilience of groups of individuals getting on with their lives in the face of extreme weather, images in the industrialized world tend to focus upon the aftermath of extreme weather and human suffering induced by extreme weather events," the paper says.

Others showed withering landscapes during drought, a disaster that President Obama underscored last week in parched California. These shots of arid land captured the impact on, say, a field but not on humans. That, too, can make people shrug at the impacts of climate change.

"They didn't show humans being in control of doing anything," Nerlich said. "They were mostly absent from the landscape of the images."

The study, published late last year in the journal Science as Culture, coincides with a long list of punishing weather events. Seven of the 10 costliest natural disasters have occurred in the last decade, according to Munich Re, the reinsurance giant. They include hurricanes Katrina and Ike and Superstorm Sandy in the United States. Flooding inundated parts of Thailand in 2011, months before the IPCC's report was released.

Just last week, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the financial impact of extreme weather events. The toll for the U.S. government amounted to $1.15 trillion in economic losses between 1980 and 2010, David Heyman, an assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, told the panel. Future impacts could amount to $1.2 trillion by 2050, he said.

The Obama administration has strongly argued in favor of addressing climate change over the past week. On Friday, Obama noted that 99 percent of California is drier than normal as he stood in front of a brown field on an almond farm near Fresno.

"We have to be clear: A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods are potentially going to be costlier and they're going to be harsher," Obama said.

Polar bears out, self-help images in

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) yesterday asked leaders in the House of Representatives to pay attention to the topic. He and more than 30 Democratic members of Congress from California urged Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to hold a hearing on the connection between climate change and the Western drought.

"The American people are beginning to suffer the costs -- both economic and environmental -- of extreme weather connected to climate change," the lawmakers said in a letter, noting that 2013 was the driest year ever in California.

That request comes as some Republican lawmakers question the scientific findings around rising temperatures. The American public, though, appears less skeptical about the role of scientists. A survey released last week by the National Science Foundation found that more than 90 percent of 2,200 respondents believed scientists are dedicated professionals who work for the "good of humanity."

But the public's gap in scientific knowledge might also complicate the message around climate change. For example, just 74 percent of respondents knew that the Earth revolves around the sun.

When it comes to choosing pictures that might resonate with people's feelings about climate change, even the experts have trouble.

After Nerlich wrote a blog post about her recent paper, she wondered how to illustrate the entry without falling victim to the pitfalls outlined in her research.

A polar bear? That's a climate change cliché, she said, also ruling out dripping ice, drought and flooding because they stand to convey helplessness or, perhaps worse, indifference.

In the end, she chose a graph showing the media's increased coverage of extreme weather events. Alternatively, she thought an image of protective flood walls, like those found in the Netherlands, might resonate with viewers as a hopeful effort at adaptation.

"It is very, very difficult, I think," to find the right picture, she said.

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