Lonely polar bears and slim wind turbines

Something is definitely wrong with climate change communication. If not, there would be daily protests by mothers demanding to shut down every coal plant. „Meatless Mondays” would be universal (cutting back methane emissions), „Black Tuesdays” are the norm (charging of mobile devices prohibited), obligatory „Car-free Wednesdays” (only bikes allowed), real „Reality-TV Thursdays” (only programs dedicated to the most important global issues), and „Climate Change Fridays” in schools would be cool.


So, what can the problem be? Besides many issues related to the complexity of the climate change topic, the channels used to talk about it, the noise of information overload, and the vested interests of opponents – a key problem is the language we use to talk about climate change.


Let’s start with the simple word „climate”. It’s too abstract, not easy to grasp, and it has a very strong ’school book’ smell – from those same textbooks we hated in the sixth grade. Then: „change”. The word evokes the latest car commercials or the Facebook flood of Coelho quotes: change is good, nothing to worry about. Despite of this, through the lingual framing of extreme weather events, health, travel or financial issues, people are slowly starting to understand that its happening now, its here, and it affects very strongly our everday lives.


But it is not just the words we play with: there is also a serious problem with the images we choose to illustrate very important reports or super useful campaigns on the topic. There is no need to explain that in our image-ruled world, pictures are everything. Text is almost, and sadly, nothing.


A Polar bear balancing on a tiny piece of ice, smoking factory chimneys, the sad planet (with a thermometer in its mouth) – or, on the other hand, a turned-off switch, wind turbines, green leaves, sunshine, and happiness. These are the overused symbols of the old-school climate change communication. It is clear why the image of a polar doesn’t evoke emotion anymore – its too far in both time and space, and in importance.


So what’s wrong with iconic wind turbines? In the communication guidelines, the first thumbrule was (or still is): be positive, show the bright future, avoid the doomsday scenarios, etc. But with every new day its increasingly clear that we should move our focus from mitigation toward adaption – and this means that we can’t only talk about a rose-tinted future anymore. We have to speak about the dark ruby scenarios too. We have to be prepared. We have to be honest.


A few weeks ago, the French Institute in Budapest organised an event related to the upcoming Paris climate conference. As part of the event, they asked young and talented designers to make posters on the climate change topic. No restrictions – just pure gut feelings.


Can this kind of art really support the fight against climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that if young visual artists could use their ’extreme power’ to reach people, especially the youth who have no idea what is going on outside their comfortable bubble, this could cause a real revolution.


Let’s see the posters.


Although there is something uncomfortable with the dark portrayal of Europe in Dora Szemtmihalyi’s work, the overall style is still playful. We have seen this map thousands of times – this is why it is so surprising to see the symbols of destructions in the well-known corners of the continent.


Mapping the climate change topic with both the causes and the consequences, through easy to understand icons in this fun style, Dora’s aim was to introduce this complex and serious topic to children in a digestible way. Her second poster plays with warming/warning words to put the pictures into a siren frame. Simple – but loud as a siren. Hopefully kids will listen to it.


Anita Nemes built a common bridge through the use of circles in her two posters. The first one (which is actually a balloon about to burst), is talking about the causes of climate change, such as our easy lifestyle backed up with an ‘invisible’ industrial process. The other poster (ruled by a rising, or more likely setting sun) is less abstract and goes closer to the topic: or brings it closer to us, as you like it. As Anita put it into words, this poster is about a ‘general chaos’ in an urban environment. For me is it’s a portrayal of the well-known corners and details of our everyday city life – hit by something unexpected. Anita emphasized that its not just a storm, because climate change goes beyond this.


The ambiance is poetic: people are walking in the streets with their kids like nothing has happened which, for me, makes it more scary. So this is the way the two circles are turning into blind eyes, because it seems we are blind to the future.


There is nothing nice or kind in the posters of Oliver Arthur, but the pure vision of the future where there are no humans – just animals sitting on the fragments of a flooded world. His main frame was the ’fallibility’ of the humans. We will fall, maybe, but at least the animals may survive us. He used very simple symbols and a strong color scheme as a deterrent sign. His future world is bare, hostile, sad and unbearable. We can ask ourselves: is this what we really want?


Natalia Varga also told her climate change story with animals. Instead of recycling overused symbols or frightening scenes, she stepped into a dream world. She told the climate change story in a completely different way. Her animals are happy – to leave our dying planet. To escape the Earth they use the leftovers of our deadly circuses, carbon-free flying vehicles.


Somehow, even with the vision of the uninhabitable Earth, I like her posters the best. Not because I’m biased (she is a proud member of our BEE team), or because Nati’s posters were voted the best by visitors of the event. I think if we want real results in the fight against climate change, we have to completely rethink our communication approach: from the language we use, to the pictures we choose.