Why Seeing Climate Change Matters

If you have had a chance to read some of our previous blog posts, you will likely have noted that our discussion of climate change focuses heavily on people’s perception of it.

We have discussed how climate change information reaches people through a number of filters controlled by different media channels, and argued that your surrounding landscape may provide the most direct and impartial source of information on climate change.

At this point, you might be asking yourself: why are we placing so much importance in individuals’ perception  of climate change?

With climate change, what you see is what you get (as in mentally ‘getting it’). You can only really understand it if you see for yourself.

Photo: Google Earth, Bebeto Matthews/AP

Photo: Google Earth, Bebeto Matthews/AP

People who lived through Hurricane Sandy saw it for themselves; they get it.  They saw their city change right before their eyes, in an extreme weather occurrence that is indicative of and produced by climate change.

AP Photo/Charles Sykes

AP Photo/Charles Sykes

sandy 3


But most of us (in the more developed world at least) haven’t yet had such a traumatic experience arising from an extreme event related to climate change.

We can instead look for more subtle signals of climate change around us, as shown in Chapters 5-9 of Visualizing Climate Change: a sort of “Field Guide to Local Climate Change”.  In an upcoming blog we will provide you with a quick guide to identifying sources of carbon emissions around you, in your own city, neighbourhood, and home.

We can also use imagery to inform and motivate ourselves.  We live in a highly visual modern culture – where pictures are shared with the greatest ease, allowing millions of people to view a Instagram post, a Pinterest pin or a Facebook album within seconds.

Al Gore might be the most well-known reference for this. His documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, made use of extensive visualizations, maps, and graphs to demonstrate the urgency with which we must respond to climate change. However, while An Inconvenient Truth was successful in increasing awareness of climate change for many people, it seemed to fail in promoting action against climate change.

The key, some have argued, is to make climate change local: to make climate change visible and meaningful in your own city, neighbourhood and home.  An Inconvenient Truth applies visualization techniques to global cities and iconic locations which many viewers know of, but which they may not relate to or care about.

Planners and local officials in the Western USA reported that “local scepticism and lack of urgency [towards climate change] may be due to few visible impacts in their communities that residents feel are attributable to climate change”. (Flint: 2009, citing Metz and Below (2009)) Studies show that “householders grossly over-estimate the resources used by visible devices, such as lighting, and greatly underestimate less visible resource consumption” such as water heaters and furnaces.

Bill McKibben advocates using meaningful and “striking images that define your community” when representing the impacts of climate change. (McKibben: 2007, p.150)  Our own research in communities in British Columbia also shows that people can respond quickly and positively to visualizations of their own community futures with climate change problems and solutions(refs: Sheppard et al., 2011; Cohen et al;, 201?).

So, it matters quite a lot that people can see climate change in their own backyard.   As mentioned above, there are various ways to make climate change visible locally, though this is not yet common.  Look for an upcoming blog on how we can make better use of visual media on climate change at the community level…..



Flint, A. (2009) ‘Survey reveals details of climate action in the West’, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Newsletter, 10 December, available at: http://atlincolnhouse.typepad.om/pressroom/2009/12/index.html

McKibben, B. (2007) Fight Global Warming Now, Holt Paperbacks, New York.

Unawareness of Climate Change

After last week’s post, we can understand that the way you see the landscape around you can directly impact your climate change literacy and action.


It might be surprising to think that different people can see the physical landscape in different ways – but your perception and understanding of what is around you will unquestionably vary, quite significantly, according to what you are looking for.


The video below exemplifies this principle, known as selective awareness.



Selective awareness can be shaped in a number of different ways.


In the case of the video, different colors and a fast sequence of movements kept you from noticing other things that appear on the screen.


In the case of climate change, selective awareness is composed of a myriad of factors – too many to name or to count. We want to focus on selective awareness that comes from, well, unawareness – not knowing or understanding the meaning of what you see, in terms of climate change and sustainability – and encourage you to take a look at the landscape around you with different eyes.


Information about climate change is, for the most part, delivered to us by the mass media. Newspapers, magazines, websites, encyclopedias, radio shows – these are are filters for the information that is fed by climate change scientists and climate change deniers.


The  local landscape is often ignored by the observer as a source of information on climate change. This channel is a powerful one – you observe the landscape with your own eyes and intellect, and therefore this source of information is less susceptible to exterior filters, allowing the observer to independently comprehend the information at hand.


Credit: J. Myers

Credit: J. Myers


By being able to read the landscape with climate change lens, our hope is that you would recognize the local face of climate change.


What should you be looking for, then? How can you tell if your local landscape is one of sustainability or one of high carbon emissions?


Let’s start with a picture.


Blue bins are a signifier in a climate change landscape. What do they mean to you? Photo: S. Sheppard

Blue bins are a signifier in a climate change landscape. What do they mean to you?
Photo: S. Sheppard


The images shows a laneway where bins have been left for trash collection.


If we go one step further and interpret this image, we can note that the blue bins on the ground are recycling bins, which demonstrates a community-wide care for recycling, waste reduction and sustainability.


What other indicators of sustainability and climate change action are there on your local landscape?


Illustration: chris-watson.co.uk. Poster: Copyright SERCC (South East Rural Community Council)

Illustration: chris-watson.co.uk. Poster: Copyright SERCC (South East Rural Community Council)


This poster, prepared by South East Rural Community Councils, illustrates the physical elements that can be found in a more sustainable and climate-friendly community.


How many can you spot looking out the window?
Share your thoughts, comments and ideas with us @visualizingcc

The Way to Solving Climate Change

Have you ever thought about your own life  with climate change?


For example – the things you eat, the things you wear, the places you go to, where you live – have you ever wondered how these are and will be affected by climate change, or how you may be contributing to making things better or worse? Difficult isn’t it? But, whether you recognize it or not, massive changes are underway in our own backyards.


Three Big Problems with Climate Change

I think of the climate change crisis in terms of three linked problems:

Problem 1. Climate change itself: many scientists, organizations and publications describe it as the most serious crisis mankind has ever faced.
Problem 2. The lack of effective action to address Problem 1.
Problem 3. Social and perceptual barriers that prevent us from seeing Problems 1 and 2 as serious or requiring immediate solutions

We need to overcome Problem 3 to solve Problem 2 and thus take care of Problem 1. 3, 2, 1 – Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is all but simple.


Global carbon emissions are rising every year. The gap between political rhetoric of sustainable development and day-to-day action is ”scandalously wide” (Foster, 2008). The gap is most pronounced in consumer behavior:  the purchasing and consumption of food, energy and goods have been largely unaffected by slowly rising awareness of global climate change.


Why has there been so little effective response so far, despite the overwhelming information currently available on climate change? Part of the answer is the failure of many governments at all levels to act decisively on major incentives and penalties influencing behaviour and the economy around mitigation and adaptation to climate change.  In many countries, for example, the rate a person pays for electricity actually goes down as their consumption goes up, instead of the reverse. In this case, people are being rewarded for using more electricity and increasing their carbon footprint.


Perhaps you can you think of a few examples like this in your own community…. Of course, it doesn’t help help that governments, companies, and the media often fail to reinforce desired policies and behaviours, sending mixed signals….


Source: The Telegraph, 22 April 2009. Copyright Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009.

Source: The Telegraph, 22 April 2009. Copyright Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009.


For example, this news clipping reveals a major policy disconnect: one article speaks of the latest political initiative to “slash” carbon emissions, while the adjoining piece celebrates measures to boost oil and gas production. But a major obstacle is the attitudes and priorities of the public themselves, our social norms and practices which are resistant to change. It is hard for us to connect with climate change, to see the signs that it is happening, to grasp how it may change the way we live.


As described in our last blog post, climate change is often represented to the public in the form of melting ice floes, scientific charts and global temperature maps – things which are hard to translate to real life.


In this blog, we argue that a major driver for change is for people to see others taking climate change seriously in their own neighbourhoods.  In spite of what government is or is not doing, we can encourage thoughtful and collective climate action among citizens and voters at the neighbourhood scale, through a change in the way we see our local landscapes and motivate action within them.


The walking school bus: a great example of initiative taken at the neighbourhood level to reduce car use, resulting in lower carbon emissions and higher community connectivity with the landscape. Source: tcpalm.com.

The walking school bus: a great example of initiative taken at the neighbourhood level to reduce car use, resulting in lower carbon emissions and higher community connectivity with the landscape. Source: tcpalm.com.


But how exactly?   Stay tuned for the next blog posts! We will explore new ways of looking at our communities through a climate change lens, and explain principles and techniquesfor applying visual media to your own local landscape, in order to galvanize local discussion and perhaps action.


Share your thoughts, comments and ideas with us @visualizingcc


References Foster, J.M. (2008) The Sustainability Mirage, Earthscan, London.

Making Climate Change Visual, Local & Connected

It is easy to think of climate change as something that will affect us in the distant future.

It is easy to think of global warming as something that is relevant only to other people who live in low-lying coastal areas – or if you are a polar bear.

Polar bear on an ice floe, a distant depiction of climate change that is hard to relate to. Photo: Ansgar Walk. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The reality is, climate change can be seen anywhere and everywhere.

Climate change impacts, causes and solutions are all present or represented in the landscapes we inhabit. We live in the shadow of the high-carbon lifestyle to which humanity, at least in western countries, has grown accustomed.

High carbon suburbia.

High carbon suburban landscape. Can you see where carbon emissions come from? Photo: S. Sheppard

By learning to see these signifiers of climate change, we can overcome the disconnect between our thinking and the reality.  We can begin to understand the wider impact of climate change on our daily lives, which may encourage us to switch to more sustainable, lower-carbon lifestyles and resilient neighbourhoods.

The goal of this series of blog posts: to encourage thoughtful and collective climate action at the neighbourhood scale, through a change in the way we see and perceive the landscape we inhabit, using a climate change lens.

This series will provide a sample of the many ways we can make climate change visible in our own backyards, as a way to stimulate discussions among neighbours and foster local action.  Examples will be drawn from the book Visualizing Climate Change and from success stories in real communities.  We will also help you to to start thinking about and visualizing your own future, ranging from simple do-it-yourself visual techniques to the latest smart visioning tools.

Can you see opportunities for a more sustainable, more energy efficient, lower-carbon communityto develop?

Can you see opportunities for a more sustainable, more energy efficient, lower-carbon community to develop? Photo: S. Sheppard


p425_Ch 13 Fig 13.12 b)

These are only some of the ways in which this neighbourhood could be adapted to become more sustainable. Visualization: J. Laurenz, CALP, UBC

Over time the blog will provide a tool-kit with new concepts, little-known key facts, and practical tips for positive action, accompanied by eye-catching visuals to grab people’s attention and prove our point: climate change can be seen and solved in our own backyards.

We welcome you to share your ideas or community success stories by tweeting us @VisualizingCC


To read the latest posts, make sure to sign-up for our RSS feed!


Stephen Sheppard and Mayara Benedetti


All visual and written content originally published in  Visualizing Climate Change.



Cutting Carbon Emissions with Thermal Imaging and Dinner Parties

Imagine going to a pot-luck on your block where, over a glass of wine, you learn from your neighbour that there is a way to actually see how much heat (and money) you are losing through your home’s single pane windows and poorly sealed ceilings… Or learning that several of your neighbours had energy audits done to their homes and had dramatically improved their energy efficiency. And that local businesses even provided discounts to residents on your block for materials used in their home retrofits.

This is more or less what happened on a small community on Eagle Island, in West Vancouver, BC. Initiated by film-maker and mother Tarah Stafford, an Eagle Island resident, this community-led movement took off two years ago. Most neighbours have now done energy audits, many have retrofitted their homes, and carbon footprints have been significantly cut.

Copyright: Julie Goodhew, 2011

Copyright: Julie Goodhew, 2011

It has spawned a wider movement called Cool Neighbourhoods, which seeks to replicate and expand this innovative grassroots model, offering free thermal imaging to local residents.  Continue reading