Re-Imagine Climate Change Communication

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The “Little-p Politics” of Climate Visualization: Making It Useful to Those Who Need It Most

Impulse text by Prof. Dr. Lynda C. Olman, University of Nevada, Reno, USA

My research deals mainly with the public reception of climate visualizations, particularly scientific ones. As a rhetorician, however, what I’m primarily interested in is not how “clearly” a climate visualization gets across its message, or how “effective” the visualization is in getting its viewers to modify their behavior in certain ways, but rather how the visualization participates in the formation and regulation of polity, which can be defined as a community that has to work together to stay together. In other words, a rhetorical orientation toward climate visualization asks, “What are the politics of this visualization?” once “politics” is understood in the “little-p” sense and not as a function of national or global politics. Some questions I routinely ask when I look at a climate visualization are as follows: Does the visualization rally a new polity around it to take action? Does it split an existing polity into factions? Does it speak for members of a polity that have been marginalized or ignored (like non-human members, for instance)?


Here are the two big findings from my research into the politics of climate visualizations to date:
  1. Visualizations are the most politically useful when they are scaled to a particular polity and address a matter of concern (Latour, 2004) to that polity. As a result, the most impactful climate visualizations may not be useful at a national or international scale. In fact, there is no functional global polity, so most global climate visualizations are not very politically useful at all.
  2. Climate visualizations are most valuable when they strengthen the bonds of polity, particularly across traditional modern boundaries such as expert/nonexpert and human/nonhuman (DeVasto & Olman, forthcoming). It doesn’t matter so much if a particular visualization conduces to a particular political action, but it matters a lot if the visualization leaves a polity stronger than it found it because the management of Anthropocene risk is a long game that requires collectivity, resilience, communication, and flexibility.


Here is what I routinely recommend to experts who make climate visualizations for nonexperts:
  1. Make yourself useful to a particular polity so they will turn to you for advice and listen to you when you give it. It helps if you have “skin in the game”: i.e., if the polity is your town or your neighborhood, or a national organization whose anti-racist agenda you share. If what affects the polity affects you, too, they will be more likely to turn to you for advice.
  2. Ask the polity you’re working with/for what they care about with respect to climate change and climate projection. Does your polity have a particular region of interest, or a particular impact of interest, such as sea-level rise or wildfire risk? Focus your visualization around the matters of concern for your polity.
  3. Listen to the way your polity talks and look at the kinds of images they create and share, and incorporate as many of those commonplaces in your own visualization as you can (Lambrecht et al., 2019).
  4. Be as explicit as you can about the way you’re dealing with uncertainty. This is tricky because your polity may initially want you to sound certain because that’s how they understand scientists, and that’s what they think will make them feel secure (Walsh, 2013). But certainty is a political addiction, an ever-increasing need that is ultimately unsustainable. Therefore, you’re better off being honest about the sources and kinds of uncertainty you have to deal with in making your projections. Your polity deals with uncertainty every day when they choose how to invest their retirement funds or decide to drive over a snowy pass. Talk to them as if you are making your decisions on a similar basis: explain in as normal language as you can how you cope with the technical uncertainties that arise in the course of your work; show the range of uncertainties as cleanly as you can in your visualization (here’s a great example of how to visualize projection uncertainties in a way that makes sense visually: the Future Urban Climates project)


As a result of the above work and concerns, I’m getting interested in hybrid visualizations that are partly scientific and partly social or artistic or both. I think we need more of these hybrid visualizations going forward in order to generate the most robust and resilient management of Anthropocene climate risk; and, to de-center Western scientific climate visualizations in favor of ones that are meaningful to the communities most vulnerable to climate change (an approach often referred to as decolonial).  I’ll finish this impulse paper with a few examples of climatic and environmental visualizations I find particularly promising right now from a rhetorical and decolonial perspective:

  1. Safecast. This hybrid social-scientific visualization of radiation risks uses crowd-sourced data to provide just-in-time readings at a hyper-local scale. The basic model has already been adapted to visualize COVID testing availability.
  2. The Paruku Project. This project gathered scientists and land custodians to address matters of local concern in Western Australia and generate hybrid scientific/artistic/social visualizations that were deeply meaningful to the local community.
  3. The Decolonial Atlas collects indigenous maps and counter-maps of matters of concern related to climate and environment, among other issues.
  4. E. B. Du Bois’s infographics for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Some of the graphics deal with environmental issues—such as urbanization and land use—but primarily they serve as an example of the ways in which scientific visualizations can be decolonized in order to make them serve the interests of vulnerable polities.


DeVasto, Danielle and Lynda C. Olman (forthcoming). “Hybrid Collectivity: Hacking Environmental Risk Visualization for the Anthropocene,” Communication Design Quarterly.

Lambrecht, K. M., Hatchett, B. J., Walsh, L. C., Collins, M., & Tolby, Z. (2019). Improving Visual Communication of Weather Forecasts with Rhetoric. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 100(4), 557-563.

Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical inquiry, 30(2), 225-248.

Walsh, L. (2013). Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, Lynda. (2014). “Tricks,” hockey sticks, and the myth of natural inscription: How the visual rhetoric of Climategate conflated climate with character. In T. Nocke & B. Schneider (Eds.), Image Politics of Climate Change: Visualizations, Imaginations, Documentations (pp. 55-81).

Walsh, Lynda. “Two-Way: An Alternative to Synoptic Rhetorics of Climate Change.” Works & Days 36(70/71), 311-332.

Walsh, Lynda. (2015). The visual rhetoric of climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 6(4), 361-368.

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