Mediating Climate Change

February 16, 2012

Julie Doyle used to study techniques for the visualisation of the body in the context of anatomy; in her spare time she was a Greenpeace campaigner. This book blends those preoccupations: it asks how climate change is represented and envisioned in the media and documentaries, by campaigners and artists, and by international scientific bodies.

Her investigation begins from two plausible insights. The first is that climate change is hard to represent visually - for media sources, scientists and campaigners - because of its "unseen, invisible characteristics". For example, global warming arises from the build-up of invisible atmospheric gases and is often taken to be manifested in storms or record temperatures that cannot be related unequivocally to changing climates. Her second point relates to climate change's "temporality". In the accepted scientific view, a key feature of climate change is that current emissions will cause enduring warming, but only in the future. The effects we feel today result from past emissions. Cause and effect are far from immediately connected and, Doyle suggests, this is counter-intuitive and hard to represent using customary visual repertoires.

These points are developed differently in the book's two parts. In the first, she compares the visualisation strategies towards climate change of the BBC, Greenpeace and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1990 to 2007, pointing out that Greenpeace consistently sought to display visually the current reality of changed climates while the BBC switched from presenting it as a future possibility to a present-day fact. There is a great deal of material that relates to these 18 years and Doyle necessarily covers it in a schematic way, but she does chart the evolution in the way the three organisations mobilise graphs, photos and more abstract images to convey environmental change.

In the second part, she looks at communication efforts in other recent contexts. As well as sampling UK press coverage of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit and the "Climategate" leaks of emails from University of East Anglia researchers, she examines the way that different non-governmental organisations try to associate concerns over climate change with demands for international justice, and she also reviews campaigns around tackling greenhouse emissions through moves away from meat- and dairy-rich diets. These case studies are less successful than the work in the first part of the book, both because they too often move away from the key insight about the difficulty of visualising climate change and because Doyle becomes sidetracked. For example, one of the NGOs she considers is the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. She reasonably points out that it may have difficulties in fully championing women's key role in development given that the Catholic Church reserves its own top roles for men, but one does not really need an analysis of visualisation to grasp this potential snag.

A further analytical problem affects this book. Although Doyle is right that there is an interesting question about how to communicate climate change in a visual medium and that there are challenges in visualising scientific uncertainty, she does not have enough to say about the nature of uncertainty in relation to climate science. On several occasions she asserts that uncertainty is important, but she does not do enough to explore exactly what types of uncertainty there are and how uncertainty could be communicated. Too often she invokes convoluted theoretical terminology without acknowledging that there is now a lot of good analysis of risks, uncertainty and ignorance about climate processes - both in scientists' own writings and in sensitive social science work. Unfortunately, this literature is not fully used to advance and deepen her investigations.

Mediating Climate Change

By Julie Doyle. Ashgate. 194pp, £50.00 and £60.00 (e-book). ISBN 9780754676683 and 76690. Published 11 August 2011

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