Polar bear a hackneyed image of climate change

How can images show that the world we live in is being subjected to ongoing climate change? This is the research question being considered by Adam Brenthel, a doctoral student in art history. He has studied researchers’ attempts to translate their findings into images to better communicate them to the general public. He thinks polar bears, the animal most often used to symbolise climate change, are inadequate.

Adam Brenthel


Adam Brenthel is a doctoral student in art history. Photo: Ingela Björck

“At this stage, the image of the polar bear is far too hackneyed! I also find it problematic that polar bears, floods, melting glaciers and parched forests illustrate the effects but not the causes of the problem. I am instead looking at how to get the viewer to understand through images the ways that climate change is actually happening here and now.”

Is it even possible to show that in images?

“Perhaps not – it’s not easy in any case. There are a lot of ambitious attempts to inform people through virtual reality in planetariums and similar environments. VR shows work very well for spatial reconstructions. You can wander round Pompeii, go deep-sea diving or head out into space, but the problem is that climate change has a temporal rather than a spatial dimension. It is also largely a matter of risks and uncertainties, and of connections between different variables that cannot be reproduced spatially.”

You recently visited Thomas Stocker in Bern, who led the work on one of the reports from the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What were his thoughts about images?

“For the cover of the group’s report, he chose an aerial photo of a Norwegian glacier. The picture was intended to illustrate the four components of the climate system – the cryosphere (frozen water), atmosphere, land surface and oceans. The photo was taken by artist Yann Arthus-Bertrand and says something that the scientific illustrations in the report cannot.

“Thomas Stocker’s favourite image is not a photograph, but rather a painting. It shows a beach with lush jungle foliage next to a lake on which a regatta is taking place. It is intended to show the link between the warmer climate and the melting of the glaciers. The lake in the painting is called ‘Lake Aletsch’ and doesn’t exist today– but there is a large glacier in Switzerland called Aletsch, which will become a lake if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their present rate.”

Is there a recurring theme in the images that the research community select when addressing the general public?

“There are always graphs, diagrams and maps of various kinds, of course. Other than that, I have noticed that the sea – an anonymous, undefined sea – is often used, perhaps to give a sense that the world is fluid and changing. I have also observed that many images have a dark background. Consciously or unconsciously, we present ‘the truth’ against such a background, perhaps as a way to get across the gravity of the issue.”

Could your forthcoming thesis help researchers to design images that can get people more engaged in the problem of climate change?

“I haven’t given any practical advice in my thesis. However, describing and analysing a problem in a structured manner can help provide new solutions to old problems. I am convinced that the humanities have a contribution to make in this area.”

Ingela Björck