New Delhi has a severe smog problem. The air is filled with a toxic grey smoke to such an extent that the government has called a public health emergency. Images of the city have been appearing across the media – the air is so clouded you can’t see the sky, and children have been given masks to protect their lungs. A day of breathing the New Delhi air has the same health impact as smoking 25 cigarettes.
The government in India has taken drastic measures to reduce emissions. For two weeks, a program has been introduced to get private cars off the roads, with odd and even-numbered license plates being banned on alternate days. Additionally, the Supreme Court has ordered a ban on farmers burning stubble to clear the fields in preparation for new crops.
This problem has become so visible that it can no longer be ignored – which could be the way we need to show the climate crisis in order to beat it. “It’s actually a visual blanket that is smothering the city and I think it’s a tipping point, where a very intangible problem has become unavoidable from a visual perspective,” says Toby Smith, programme lead for Climate Visuals, a research organisation which campaigns for the effective visual language for climate change.
He has spent time in New Delhi as a photographer and so has seen the problems they are currently facing first hand. “If the issue is repeated often enough that it builds up to a critical breaking point of public perception, and that’s where we’re at.”
Even though it’s not what they are meant to achieve, the solutions the Indian government has implemented are good for helping solve the climate crisis. The smog in New Delhi is caused by particulates in the air, while global warming is caused by greenhouse gases trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Nevertheless both of these phenomenons are caused by similar things – vehicles, fires and factories.
“New Delhi images could be quite useful in increasing people’s engagement, because they shows how reducing air pollution can have immediate benefits to people’s health, and longer term benefits in reducing our carbon footprint,” says Saffron O’Neill, who researches public perception of climate change at the University of Exeter.
Climate change can feel like a far-off idea when it comes down to actual ways in which it affects us. As we only generally experience slight changes year-to-year, it makes it easier to ignore, and some science communications experts have said we have to do better when it comes to properly conveying the seriousness of the situation.
The effects of climate change are hard to photograph. Global warming, as the name suggests, is the overall rising temperature of the planet. We experience this primarily as heatwaves that become more regular and hotter every year, but we don’t tend to see the greater planetary effects. As the world gets hotter, glaciers melt and ice disappears from the poles. This means that there is less habitat for Arctic and Antarctic animals, as David Attenborough has often pointed out in his documentaries. It also means that sea levels are higher, leading to flooding.
How can you show incremental changes? Even the effects we see in documentaries like Blue Planet may not resonate with the wider population. The image of the polar bear on a melting iceberg has long been shorthand for climate change, but researchers have found that this isn’t enough to capture the attention of the public.
“The sort of issue that we’re very good at responding to is an immediate threat and immediate danger,” says Stuart Capstick, associate director at the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations. “Climate change just doesn’t tick the psychological boxes that we need to trigger that kind of immediate response.”
In October 2019, The Guardian announced that it was going to change the way it used photographs to represent the climate crisis. It used advice from Climate Visuals to inform its decision, and decided to follow a new set of principles in order to create a bigger impact in its reporting.
The newspaper demonstrated that it would rather show the real human impact rather than yet another image of a polar bear on a melting iceberg. It wants to show families in masks on polluted days instead of burning forests.
The images from New Delhi work in this way. Members of the public are struggling to breathe as they go about their everyday lives, forcing the government to take action.
Climate Visuals have a core principle for climate change communication: show real people in emotionally powerful situations. They hope this will change the narrative of the climate crisis, from a faraway, hard to solve problem, to a real issue we need to work together to tackle.
“The link between air pollution and climate change could be really important for climate change communication,” says O’Neill. In her research she has found that health is an often ignored element of the climate crisis, even though it can be a very powerful message to readers.
If every country in the world were to introduce an alternate-day car ban like New Delhi has, it would certainly have a big impact on climate change. In London, air pollution contributes to over 9,000 premature deaths per year, yet the most the UK government has done so far is introduce an ultra low emissions zone and have one car-free day on September 22, 2019.
Focussing climate change communications around visual reminders of its impact on people’s lives could encourage the UK government to start taking more drastic measures to reduce emissions. “Health is a really good way to get people engaged in talking about climate change, because it makes climate change happen in the here and now,” says O’Neill. “It makes it relevant to things that people know about and can understand, especially in terms of thinking about risk.”
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