New Study: Extreme Weather Images Cause Fear And Climate Change Apathy

  • Date: 19/02/14
  • Science Daily

New research shows that images of extreme weather in the media create negative emotional meanings and can lead to disengagement with the issue of climate change.


[...] Reporting on extreme weather has increased over the last few years. In the past social scientists, and media and communication analysts have studied how climate change is depicted in the text of media and social media. While researchers have become increasingly interested in climate change images, they have not yet studied them with respect to symbolising certain emotions.

The International (sic) Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a draft report on extreme weather and climate change adaptation. The report was covered in the news and illustrated with images. Some of these depicted ‘extreme weather’, in particular with relation to floods, droughts and heat waves, hurricanes and ice/sea-level rise.

Researchers studied images published in the news to illustrate their coverage of the IPCC report. They used visual thematic analysis, examining the way they might symbolise certain emotional responses, such as compassion, fear, guilt, vulnerability, helpless, courage or resilience.

Results showed that images of flooding displays people in the developing world ‘getting on with it’. It portrays individuals accustomed to flooding and that they can overcome the extreme weather. The images showed cheerful behaviour of those who are affected by flooding; lack of victimhood; engagement in their day-to-day activities and communal aspects of coping with flooding.

New research has shown that images of extreme weather in the media create negative emotional meanings and might lead to disengagement with the issue of climate change. The images symbolised fear, helplessness and vulnerability and, in some cases, guilt and compassion. Appealing to fear of disaster can lead to denial and paralysis rather than positive behaviour change.

The research confirmed: “There is no indication of victimhood or desperation, but rather a mundane sense of routine. Crucially, these images represent flooding as a distant phenomenon, with which viewers are not invited or necessarily encouraged to identify. For readers in the West such images may not symbolise, or indeed convey, compassion”

It added: “In particular, might not encourage reflection upon one’s own environmental behaviour, and how this might contribute to climatic change and/or the apparent prevalence of extreme weather, unlike images of floods closer to home.”

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