On the use of imagery for climate change engagement

Saffron J. O'Neill, Maxwell Boykoff, Simon Niemeyer, Sophie A. Day

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226 Citations (Scopus)


This article answers calls from scholars to attend to a research gap concerning the visual representation of climate change. We present results from three Q-methodology workshops held in Melbourne (Australia), Norwich (UK) and Boulder (USA) investigating engagement with climate change imagery drawn from mass media sources. Participants were provided with a concourse of climate change images drawn from a newspaper content analysis carried out across all three countries, and asked to carry out two Q-sorts: first, for salience (‘this image makes me feel climate change is important’) and second, for efficacy (‘this image makes me feel I can do something about climate change’). We found results remarkably consistent both across and within country cohorts. This may indicate the presence of a dominant, mainstream discourse around climate imagery. We found that imagery of climate impacts promotes feelings of salience, but undermines self-efficacy; that imagery of energy futures imagery promotes self-efficacy; and that images of politicians and celebrities strongly undermine saliency, and undermine self-efficacy for the Australian cohort. These results, if widely replicable, have implications for climate change communication and engagement. Our results suggest that imagery plays a role in either increasing the sense of importance of the issue of climate change (saliency), or in promoting feelings of being able to do something about climate change (efficacy) – but few, if any, images seem to do both. Communications strategies should assess the purpose of their messages, considering these findings regarding salience and efficacy in this study, and choose to employ images accordingly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)413–421
Number of pages9
JournalGlobal Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions
Issue number2
Early online date20 Jan 2013
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2013


  • Climate imagery
  • Perceptions
  • Public engagement
  • Q-method
  • Saliency
  • Efficacy

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