Exploring image politics of climate change

12/08/2014 - Scientists as well as professionals in politics, education, media or fine arts have long been struggling to depict climate change, a highly abstract concept by definition. In their recently published book "Image Politics of Climate Change", PIK's Thomas Nocke and Birgit Schneider of the University of Potsdam examine a variety of images picturing global warming sparked by climate change research. They explore how these graphics have not only increased knowledge about the subject, but have begun to influence popular awareness. These visualizations vary significantly depending on their purpose, complexity and style - ranging from colorful scientific diagrams and model visualizations to photographs and paintings of extreme weather events or polar bears.
Exploring image politics of climate change
Satellite map of ozone above the Antarctic region. Photo: NASA (detail, Plate 1, p.213)

"Visualizations are relevant because they are often used to analyze complex issues and data sets but also have the ability to evoke strong emotions," Nocke explains. "Even in a scientific context, the selection of colors, for instance, can have an impact on how the results are perceived." NASA scientists made use of bold colors and contour lines to generate very vivid topographic maps of the thinning ozone layer over Antarctica, thereby raising the issue, later widely publicized as "the ozone hole", to global prominence in the 1980s. The process of visualizing this phenomenon clearly shows that an easily comprehensible metaphor can help raise awareness among the general public and render a highly complex issue more accessible.

"What distinguishes this book from others is that it covers a broad array of fields where visualizations are used to illustrate climate change," says Birgit Schneider. Sixteen interdisciplinary case studies illustrate a wide range of perspectives and questions. The introduction also offers recommendations as to which chapters might be of particular interest to potential groups of readers, such as climate scientists, policy makers and art historians. This work adds to a growing body of literature on this essential, yet often overlooked subject by taking an interdisciplinary approach.

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