Sad Earth is sad. But what is Earth sad about, exactly? Climate change, of course. At the same time, what does this picture really communicate? It doesn't tell us anything; it does nothing to convey the subtlety of climate science or the nature of its global impact. It just sort of is. It's boring, meaningless and ineffective.

The folks over at The Carbon Brief — who report on the latest developments in climate science, and routinely fact-check stories about climate and energy in the news — are perhaps more familiar than most with tired, devalued, and inaccurate images depicting climate change. Here, editor Christian Hunt gives a rundown of nine more examples he wishes would just go away.

Finding good images to illustrate climate change is hard. First up, the topic has so many abstract concepts — computer models, uncertain climate impacts, potential future scenarios. What image perfectly and pithily illustrates uncertainty in climate models, for example?

Secondly, there are a few pictures which have probably been used to much that they have become rather devalued. Not worth a thousand words, certainly. Maybe just four: "Oh dear, not again."

Finally, there are images which get used because they push people's buttons, but don't really help unpack a topic. Polar bears on ice, burning planets — they're cliches that you can't really rely on to inform and explain.


With that in mind, here are nine climate change images I probably don't need to see again:

1. Climate change will probably cause droughts that will affect people in hats. Yep, got that.

2. Climate change will 'strand' polar bears on melting ice. This is undoubtedly the one image that sums up climate change better than any other.


Except polar bears can swim. And ice melts every year. And this photo was taken in summer.

Parking for a moment the effect that climate change is having on the Arctic, let's just agree that this photo doesn't really tell us that much (similarly, many others like it) and move on. [Photo via Environzine]

3. London: Underwater. The thing about sea level rise is, no matter how cathartic it might be to see the government under water, the UK is basically rich enough to make sure this doesn't happen.


Images which show something familiar transformed do rather suggest that this is something you might wake up one morning and actually see, rather than (hopefully) a bad scenario in a future that is beyond our lifetimes. [Photo via Postcards from the Future]

4. I'm not sure why I don't like this widely used image, but I think it might be that it's too subtle.


What is it saying? Something about the planet being on fire? And also held in the palm of your hand? Perhaps if you're holding the planet in the palm of your hand, and it's on fire, you should drop it? Or put it in some water? Maybe the point is that it's your responsibility to stop the planet burning? Oh, I don't know. [Probably a stock photo (yes, it's backwards), it has spread across the internet like a weed.]

5. Here, ice is melting. It could be in the Arctic, or it could be in Scotland. Props to the Guardian, though - this image can basically illustrate any climate change article you've got lying around. It's not just the Guardian, either. Whoever took the photo must be raking it in. [Photo via AP]

6. Communicating the fact that climate change will be disruptive to human society while not overplaying the science is hard. What to do? Focus on specific, easy to remember facts. Like, as successive IPCC reports haven't shown, climate change will turn you into a fish wearing a terrible shirt. Oh dear WWF Belgium.

7. Fact: These days, sometimes writing about climate change means writing about the University of East Anglia. Problem: UEA isn't the most photogenic campus. Solution: ...

8. More of a category this, and a crime we're almost certainly guilty of on occasion — the impenetrable diagram. What does it show? No-one reading knows. Where is it explained? It isn't. Why should you care? You probably shouldn't.

9. Finally, sometimes, even once is too much.

So what's the answer? I reckon it's just too tricky to communicate about complicated subjects like climate change using crude images.


To really get the message across, perhaps a richer, more subtle medium is necessary:

Barry Chernoff, a professor of environmental studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, is teaching his students to boogie their climate cares away with his interpretive dance class, "Feet to the Fire: The Art and Science of Global Warming."

Limber up, climate communicators!

This post by Christian Hunt originally appeared on Carbon Brief, a service for journalists and the online climate community that reports on the latest developments in climate science, and fact-checks stories about climate and energy online and in the press. They provide briefings on the people and organisations talking about climate change, and produce background materials on science issues and news stories.

Top image via Shutterstock