Part I: The Role of Visual Rhetoric in Climate Justice Communication
by Mike Mian -- December 14th, 2009
A photo story of images and symbols used to communicate climate justice messages. (art, Hopenhagen, polar bears, 350)
I woke up the other morning happy to have slept off some of my jet lag and eager to start the day. The main event on my schedule was the climate justice march and protest, as seen in many other blog posts on this site. I decided to wait and reflect on the day’s events, hoping to add a unique perspective to the day’s happenings. Having thought on my experience, I found a common thread of the day particularly interesting: the role of visual rhetoric in communicating climate justice. I’ll now detail my journey through the day as relates to this topic.
My day began with a walk to the Copenhagen metro (said to be the best in the world). As I was heading down the stairs, I noticed a big, funny-looking ball in the middle of the ground. I pulled out my camera and approached. As with much of the art in the city, it was related to climate change. I noticed that one part had a giraffe walking among wind turbines. While the art appeared childish, it represented very serious issues: technology transfer, finance, and infrastructure development in the developing world. The visuals were all quite positive, and they left me with a hopeful start to the day.
The bad thing about a march is that it moves. Well, it’s bad when you’re looking for it. I was running late to the march/protest and, of course, got lost looking for it. In fact, I got off at the wrong metro stop. After wandering around a bit, I passed a scruffy man in a big puffy coat smoking a cigarette on a bench. We were in a park next to a pond full of ducks. I asked him where the protest was, and he said, “It’s here. I’m the only one that showed up!” I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a second or two to realize that he was playing with me. He then proceeded to ask about America and detail the traffic during the previous Copenhagen conference. Eventually, he took pity on me and nudged me in the right direction, pointing to a tall tower and saying to go that way. So I did.
And still, of course, I got lost. I spent the next half hour running around asking people where to go. When I finally saw some signs bobbing up and down in a crowd with the step of the protesters, I sighed in relief and pulled out my camera. I was confused upon realizing that the protestors numbered somewhere in the 20s – this couldn’t be the group I was looking for… could it? They were shouting about the beauty of green capitalism, and I figured I should search elsewhere. I ended up in a big square where a concert was taking place. Some COP 15 staff were able to point me in the right direction, and I was off again. While leaving the square, a giant billboard caught my eye (see above) with two young boys and the words “HOPENHAGEN: Earth’s Body Guards” (referring to the children). To me, this billboard touches on a huge issue in the climate justice movement: intergenerational justice. While articulating it as such might sound weird, it’s true that the effects of climate regulation decisions made today will be most sincerely felt by young and coming generations. At any given moment, the earth is or will soon be in the hands of the next generation. The equity divide isn’t just between rich and poor countries, but it’s between the old and the young as well. In both instances, one group has contributed the most to the problem (rich, old) and the other group will be most affected by its consequences (poor, young). The billboard doesn’t say all of this, but, by introducing the concept of young people protecting the world from climate change in a cute and humorous manner, it opens the prevailing discourse to new debates on this topic.
With the help of an Irish and Austrian pair of students along the way, I finally made it to the protest. I was just in time for the march to begin. I figured I would get the best pictures from being at the front of the march, so I tried to rush my way through the crowd toward the front. On the way there, though, I found some pretty interesting things.
First, as seen above, was a group of Japanese demonstrators donning polar bear and samurai outfits. While the samurai is associated with Japan (and many protestors labeled themselves as “climate justice warriors”), the polar bear has become a global condensation symbol, wrapping all the anxiety and fear of climate change, and global warming in particular, into one widely identifiable thing. These protestors apparently were trying to link that symbology to food sovereignty as well.
Another relevant symbol present was “350”, which was the catch-phrase of sorts of a global advocacy campaign promoting climate change awareness. The online effort (www.350.org) was spearheaded by Bill McKibben and his Middlebury students in the US, and the “350” signifies the atmospheric carbon level (in parts per million) that many say we must not pass if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 350, as a number (instead of a word of any particular language), is widely understood across the globe and attempts to simplify the scientific arguments that many members of the general public have trouble understanding or are intimidated by. At the same time, the quantitative approach may increase the advocacy campaign’s symbolic legitimacy (rightly claiming a foundation in science) and/or decrease its potential following (given a general aversion to science by many of the public). Regardless, hanging “350” written on a bed sheet of a window would have meant nothing a few years ago. Today it means, “I support emissions regulation keeping atmospheric GHG levels below 350 parts per million.”