Good COP, Bad COP

Part II: The Role of Visual Rhetoric in Climate Justice Communication
by -- December 14th, 2009

A photo story of images and symbols used to communicate climate justice messages. (elephant, snowman, Jane Goodall, and apocalypse)

I just found this banner funny. And it, too, could speak to a few different topics. There’s an elephant on a mountaintop after extreme sea level rise has occurred. A person in a boat paddles up to it. Both are surprised to see each other. At risk of overanalyzing the image, one point to consider is the possibility of inter-species justice with climate change. A human can make a boat – an elephant can’t. Humans caused this type of climate change – elephants didn’t. Since there were no words in any language I could understand, it was up to the image to convey the message.


The protest itself was a large symbolic gesture, and a visually impressive one at that. With estimates hovering around 80,000 demonstrators marching (and 1,000 arrested), it was a sight to see. The march began in the Copenhagen city center and took three to four hours to reach the COP 15 convention center. Yellow signs reading “Bla Bla Bla… ACT NOW!”, “There is no Planet B”, and “Climate Justice NOW!” I personally enjoyed the large floats, including a sad-looking snowman that was apparently afraid of melting. While the individual messages were exciting, it was the sheer mass of the crowd that would be most likely to spur action on the issue. More broadly, the size and message of the march called for normative changes in the global society, demanding that perspectives and behaviors change to be in accord with those of the large group.


Toward the end of the march, the demonstrators encountered some gas stations. One can imagine that these stations became places of tension. The march actually stopped at this station and gave rallying speeches condemning the use of fossil fuels and demanding change. Fortunately, I didn’t see any stones thrown. In short, the Shell station functioned as a symbol of fossil fuel economies for the protestors, and they were sure to express their anger toward it.


I eventually made it out of the cold and into the convention center. Luckily, I was in time to catch a presentation on the demand and efforts to involve indigenous communities in forest carbon reduction programs. I was surprised to see that Jane Goodall, the face of the conservation movement, was there. Apparently she is now becoming a symbol for the indigenous carbon programs as well (she is implementing them in Tanzania – by providing alternatives to environmental degradation, conservation can be enhanced). Adding her face to the panel gave it great credibility and media attention, and people were inclined to take it much more seriously. In communication terms, her affiliation with the program expanded its symbolic legitimacy. To top it off, I got a picture with her!


Upon finishing the day’s activities, I walked back to the metro to get back to my flat. I started walking up the stairs to the platform when I saw some odd light out of the corner of my eye. I walked back down to check it out. What I saw was pretty surprising (above). There were two very apocalyptic works of art right next to the convention center, telling a story of the potential effects of climate change on humanity. Both the works focused on climate justice, mainly with regard to climate refugees and sea level rise. The first art piece pictured was the grim reaper lit in red and an expected tally of climate refugees at given dates. The second was a series of skeletal figures standing in a foot of water. They represented potential climate refugees being inundated by rising sea level. In both instances, the visual rhetoric told a jeremiad – a story cautioning that behaviors must be changed or drastic effects would be felt – and provided a very different approach to the previous rhetoric used throughout the day. It was not upbeat, nor angry, nor comical, nor a well-known symbol, as was the other visual rhetoric I had seen throughout the day. In particular, the second piece was a calm and somber reminder of what could happen if sincere action is not taken soon. Though such images often overtax the conscience of audiences and cause people to avoid the issue, this quiet display was the most stirring for me. The art in the image below served to frame the issue of human dependency on nature, and it highlighted the need for equitable action.


In sum, activists and others have leveraged a variety of visual rhetoric to raise awareness and will for action toward climate justice. From the inspiring to the dismal, and from the funny to the sad, visual symbols have played an important role in issue communication and dialogue creation. While we may not fully appreciate or be aware of their role in our daily understanding of the world around us, they surely have an impact.

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