Putting A Human Face On Climate: How Do We Inspire Action?

by David Minkow, via Climate Access

Polar bears are cool. They thrive in a world of ice. They can beat up a grizzly bear. And their cubs are cute. But even as the polar bear’s world tragically continues to melt away, it’s long past the time to retire them as the most dominant face of climate disruption. The iconic image of a polar bear floating on an ice floe has compelled some people to take action, but the faraway fate of one of the only species that treats human as a food source unfortunately leaves a lot of folks relatively cold. What’s needed is to make the issue personal and that requires a human face—and one that that doesn’t have A.G. as initials.

Whether it’s Gandhi in robes on his salt march or Julia Butterfly riding out a winter storm in an old-growth redwood tree, it really helps a movement for change to have a human face on the issue. People identify with people much more than they do with a spotted owl. And the face doesn’t have to belong to a famous person or an activist: it can be a black woman refusing to give up her bus seat, a dusty and desperate migrant mother out of luck or a Napalmed 9-year-old girl running naked from the horrors of war.

This is not a new idea. There have been books, photo exhibits, documentaries as well as pleas from those most immediately threatened that have all called for putting a human face to climate change. But despite these efforts, when most Americans think about the issue, the first person who still comes to mind is Al Gore.

The face of climate change should be a face that people can relate to and be inspired by, and that rules out politicians no matter how much good they do in and out of office.

Gore may be a Nobel Prize winner, but he will always be seen as a representative of the Democratic Party and that inclines a large number of Americans to disregard pretty much everything that he says. And while it’s not essential to have everyone as part of the climate movement, it needs to include much more than the 47 percent of the public who believe (according to Mitt Romney) “that government has a responsibility to care for them.”

Moreover, Gore is a wealthy white male Baby Boomer and the environmental movement overall suffers from the perception that environmentalism is a pastime of the elite. Obviously, climate disruption affects everyone, and the image(s) needs to somehow portray that.

There is no shortage of people affected by climate change, but perhaps this is part of the problem, that no single face or set of faces can represent a truly global challenge—while some people might relate to islanders fleeing no-longer inhabitable islands, it may take a skier without snow to reach others.

There are some other tricky issues with conveying this issue visually. The pace of climate disruption, while geologically speedy, makes it generally hard to see. And while extreme weather events are quite visible, trying to tie a single storm, no matter how extreme, to global weirding can bring about more heat than light. Other times, the role of climate disruption in riveting events goes largely unacknowledged (such as Arab Spring) and thus makes for a way-too-complicated visual story.

Also, given that fear, hopelessness and being overwhelmed are common human responses to the issue, portrayals of climate victims may only exacerbate such emotions. On the other hand, depictions of those who’ve come up with solutions may fail to deliver if they or their remedy is too wonky or they haven’t gone on a hero’s journey and triumphed in the face of adversity.

Whether climate hero, refugee or somewhere in between, the right face(s) will capture the imagination of the media as well as various segments of the public—people will repost it because they’re moved, not just because they want to move others. This sometimes occurs through happenstance, but normally it takes a lot of strategy and effort, so we at Climate Access want to hear from practitioners who have been trying to put a human face on climate.

David Minkow is the content editor for Climate Access.

What is and isn’t working for you in trying to put a human face on climate? Are there images that you wish you had but don’t? What are your ideas on how best to disseminate and popularize images that would make humans the face of climate?

Please let us know and we will share your advice and those of other experts in an upcoming post. Please also send examples of effective images.

10 Responses to Putting A Human Face On Climate: How Do We Inspire Action?

  1. cRR Kampen says:

    We do not inspire action, proven fact. It is now time to sit back, relax and enjoy the mayhem.

  2. Scott Bischke says:

    I am encouraging another path, that of allegory as a way to reach people about the climate change crisis. Check out FISH TANK: A FABLE FOR OUR TIMES, which has been called “The ANIMAL FARM for our times” and been lauded by a Nobel prize winner from the IPCC.

  3. John McCormick says:

    I cannot imagine a more vivid symbol to convey this issue visually than using the faces of children.

    Back in 2009, Joe included a photo of several adorable children in their halloween costumes. It was priceless.

    The photo is no longer on that post back on Oct. 27, 2009 but Joe might be persuaded to post it again.

    It is all about the children. We hawks will escape the chaos.

    “Green Halloween tips you may not have thought of PLUS when you see kids out trick-or-treating tonight ¦”

    By Joe Romm on Oct 27, 2009 at 9:35 am

  4. Michael Courtney says:

    I don’t have any data from an organization, but only anecdotal evidence from talking to as many people as I can and from research. Several points:

    -People know the information (60% now believe it’s real), it’s just not in the media because of corporate control. The problem is people are scared into denial and passivity and used to too much comfort in the U.S. to take action. It’s not personal as you said in your article.

    -People need opportunities to be asked what they think about climate change and to be listened to while they talk about it. It’s a practically form of trauma to face what is happening – and the first step to go through is denial. Anything to get people talking – perhaps “listening corps” in communities who organize events to simply ask, “what do you think about climate change and how will it affect your family?” What do you think should be done?

    -Talking about and promoting hopeful opportunities for change based on very local and regional organizing that actively involves everyday people with the skills they have. I have seen 150 people gather around the Transition Town Movement and be excited and engaged in action. Like MoveOn or Obama’s 2008 campaign, we need to paint a bright picture of hope that is organized at the local level by armies of volunteers going out to talk to people, call, and use social media wisely.

    -There needs to be a clear policy that a large coalition of national or international groups are promoting and fighting for and willing to fight for at all costs. This might start with a regional approach such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in New England, but with everyone fighting for it nationally, then going national.

    -We need organized labor involved and integrated by combining economic justice issues with climate change policy. Revolutionary policies happen when the working class will not run the economy with their work unless their demands are met.

    -“What’s in it for me?” Climate Change needs to be talked about in terms of the true costs people and their grandchildren will face in a personal way: the cost of food, not being able to hike or fish in the same forests, local governments and schools strapped for cash. On the bright side, we need to show a picture of a sustainable future – what life could be like – what would it look like? Why will it better in everyday terms? People only change when they feel personally that it matters to them. Basic marketing research should be invested in and used to find out what points people respond to.

  5. Dick Smith says:

    The human face needs to be Dr. James Hansen. He taught Al Gore. He gave Bill McKibben the number 350. He’s on the Advisory Board of Citizens Climate Lobby. And, his predictions have been uncannily accurate for more than 25 years.

    He’s been arrested in peaceful demonstrations in several countries. His application of the phrase “game over” scenario to the Keystone XL pipeline was probably the single most important factor in mobilizing folks outside the immediate climate movement to join in winning and (so far) holding on to the only major victory in recent years.

    His writing is amazing–whether it’s a peer-reviewed study, a science brief in a legal case, or a New York Times Op Ed.

    And, his demeanor is calm and unflappable (see the TED video, for example).

    As far as I’m concerned, he’s the Ghandi of climate movement, and should be the “human face” of it.

  6. Peter Anderson says:

    I agree with Dick Smith about Jim Hansen, but to improve upon that we need to bring in children and, to combine the two, Jim and his grandkids, as here

  7. Gillian King says:

    There’s a hint about the kind of face that gathers support in the examples you give – they are all women and children. Our protective impulses are immensely powerful, and nothing arouses us like the honest efforts and struggles of those who are weaker.

    I suggest this image ( of a Bangladesh mother and her two boys. Especially as Bangladesh has offered its widow’s mite to fighting climate change and promised to limit its carbon emissions – no caveats, ifs or buts.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We know that across the world, in most countries, even the USA and Australia, majorities of ordinary, decent, people know that things are awry, and that disaster looms. However, amongst the tiny, ruling, global Rightwing elite, and within a dwindling fraction of the general population, indifference and denial rule.
    It is, of course, pointless to think of ways to appeal to the power elite and their misanthropic supporters amongst the proles. By their very psychological nature (proved by their ‘success’ in neo-liberal capitalist states)they are totally indifferent to the fate of others because massively egotistical, lack human empathy, particularly for those different from their own type and are utterly unscrupulous in pursuing self-advantage at the cost of others. Pictures of children in Bangladesh will have no, positive, effect on them.

  9. Duncan Noble says:

    I am climate change.

    We all need to believe it, say it, repeat it, and live it.

    It’s time for all of us to step up, just like the Roman slaves who all stood together and said “I am Spartacus”.

    I realize we are not all heroes, at least not all the time. But we all have heroic potential, and can surprise ourselves. I am constantly struggling. If we struggle together we are so much stronger.

    Are you climate change?

  10. Anders Hsi says:

    We have an idea that we are starting to put into action. We are a group of college students and recent graduates who are in the process of creating Enthousis ( -our next iteration of our website will happen within the month) because we believe that we need to:

    1. Inspire action with hope and opportunity rather than motivate with fear.
    2. Show solidarity, addressing the crisis of the commons head on.
    3. Give people a way to participate and feel like their participation is making a concrete difference.
    I have written more below about each point.

    Enthousis is a clothing brand where 20% of every purchase is contributed to an environmental project of the customer’s choice.

    Enthousis strives to create a platform of expression, awareness, resources, action, and community that anyone can participate in to contribute to realizing the opportunity of a sustainable world.

    This is not about clothing; there are plenty of clothing brands already out there.
    This is about empowering anyone to express their deeper values while also contributing to creating a sustainable environment.
    This is an easy way both for anyone to make a difference and for anyone to show the world that anyone can make a difference. When people wear our brand they express their deeper values, their action of contributing 20% of their purchase to a sustainable future, and the solidarity of our mission.
    Within a month we will complete the next iteration of our brand presentation, lower our prices significantly, and really launch our marketing (please let us know if you have any ideas!)
    We are currently looking for environmental group partners. Please get in touch if you know anyone who might be interested in receiving contributions from our sales.

    1. Inspire with opportunity and hope: In my experience, I have been driven most powerfully by positive motivations like love, friendship, and the vision of a better future. Environmentalists’ messages often use fear to motivate people into action instead of hope to inspire them. Every problem is an opportunity; the bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity. Fear often petrifies people, making them feel insignificant and powerless as individuals in the face of a daunting gloom global problem like climate change.
    2. Demonstrate solidarity: Climate disruption is a classic crisis of the commons, the largest commons that we know. People must show their own commitment and passion for creating a sustainable future. We need to see that other people care and are doing something meaningful to express their values about mitigating climate disruption.
    3. Give people a way to participate meaningfully: People need to be given messages that offer a course of action to a meaningful solution that will contribute to the environment.

    What do you think? Please feel free to get in touch. This was an excellent post and I hope to continue this conversation.