Graphic violence: why communicating climate change with data is a terrible idea.

I’m a historian, but a lot of my work involves climate change. It’s right that I’m focused on it, because global warming represents nothing less than the transition of one era of human history to another and the biggest engine of historical change in our modern world. I’ve been working on climate change for some time now, and let me make a candid admission: if I see another graph, chart or map as the lead image in an article or presentation on climate change, my head is going to explode.

The reign of the graph in the realm of climate change communication needs to end. Many things need to be reformed within the realm of climate change communication — for one thing, we need an across-the-board, pain-of-death ban on images of polar bears clinging to icebergs — but one of the most important things that those of us engaged in the issue of climate change can do is to stop using those [bleeping] graphs. Why? Because they’re counterproductive, and they’re making it harder, not easier, for the issue of climate change to resonate with decisionmakers and the general public. The fact that so few people in the field of climate change realize this, to me, is astonishing.

This is what climate change data looks like to most people. Not very motivating, is it?

On the one hand, it’s understandable how the graph came to be, along with that sodding polar bear, the dominant image in the climate change milieu. The initial understanding of climate change and its relationship to human activity emerged from the scientific community, which communicates most effectively with data. As far back as 1938, climate researcher G.S. Callendar was plotting estimates of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on an upward-swinging graph, and his estimates were translated into measured reality by the famous saw-toothed “Keeling Curve” of a later era. Modern climate scientist Michael E. Mann, one of the most respected thinkers in the field, is most famous — and detested by denialists — for creating a graph of historic temperatures, the “Hockey Stick.” Scientists sounded the first alarm on climate change, and scientists define the world through charts, graphs and data. That’s what they do.

But on the other hand, the graph, or other data visualization tool, is a very poor way to try to motivate the one thing we need more of on climate change right now than anything else: action. Graphs do not engage people emotionally. They trigger none of the basic functions of the human brain and psyche that lead to decision and action: the fight-or-flight response, the appreciation of common values, engagement with other human beings on a social level, or any sense of meaning, belonging or identity. A graph or other data visualization stimulates one, and only one, limited realm of the human experience: the analytical and problem-solving center. The appeal of that is limited at best. To demonstrate that, all I have to do is say to you something like, “One train leaves Philadelphia at 12:00 going 60 miles an hour. Another leaves Chicago…”

See what I mean?

Climate change affects real people, right here in America. Yet graphs, and animals, still dominate climate change visuals.

For all the strengths that graphs have in organizing and communicating data, they also have an unintended — and tragic — side effect. They communicate that the people who should be interested in climate change, and the people who should solve it, are primarily people who work with data: scientists, technicians and other technocrats. That framing implicitly gives a pass to those whose engagement with climate change is the most needed: business and industry leaders, politicians, and cultural influencers. An issue defined primarily by graphs and data representations is an issue that people who are not motivated by data sets are loath to become involved with. If you see a complicated math problem written on a chalkboard, do you really feel like it’s your responsibility to pick up the chalk and try to solve it? No, of course not. You’re going to look around for the nearest mathematician. Even a guy in a white coat standing next to the chalkboard screaming at you about how important it is to solve this problem isn’t going to make much difference to you. However dire the problem, its representation as an equation telegraphs that it’s not in your wheelhouse to solve it.

I’ll go even a step farther: graph and data-heavy communications of climate change, I think, actually tend to encourage denialism rather than retard it. If you show a climate change denier a graph of rising temperatures or declining sea ice, the issue instantly becomes about your graph rather than about what it represents. “But, your sampling size!” “But, you didn’t include this data or that one!” “But, these calculations aren’t reliable!” Denialists love to have these kinds of arguments because they distract attention away from the bigger picture. When you’re arguing about temperature data on a graph, you’re not talking about climate refugees or water scarcity or how oil companies suppressed their own data on climate change for 40 years. As soon as you start making it about data, you’ve turned climate change into a wonky board game, a duel of slide rules and calculators. It becomes bloodless, faceless and academic. That’s exactly how deniers want people to view climate change.

Research makes clear that images of the human effects of climate change are far more effective at motivating action than data.

If you want to become a more effective climate change communicator — if you want to reach people on the issue and make them see the urgency and importance of action — my suggestion is this: ban the graph. Throw away the charts. The data on climate change is what it is, and it tells an important story, but that’s not how to reach people. Instead of charts and graphs, show people human faces. Tell human stories. Talk about the impacts of climate change in your own country, on real people. Data is not human. You can’t hug a graph. Climate change is a human problem and a human tragedy. The numbers simply can’t communicate that. Stop pretending they can.