This contribution examines visual climate storytelling of Fridays for Future’s (FFF) global climate strike on 24 September 2021. Running under #UprootTheSystem, the climate strikes meant a return to public spaces after Covid-19-related restrictions heavily impacted the movement’s ability to reach global audiences. We situate our piece in the ongoing debate about climate communication and climate storytelling (e.g. Bloomfield and Manktelow 2021). Given FFF’s success in recent years to bring the issue of climate change onto the global agenda despite the Corona pandemic, we believe it is important to understand how the movement is, so to say, telling the story of climate change to wider audiences. In our heuristic analysis we discuss (visual) narrative elements of the official Instagram account of the international edition of FFF.
Climate change communication and climate storytelling
The question of how to educate, inform, and mobilize a broader public about climate change is the subject of climate change communication. In particular, the communication of scientific knowledge about climate change to public audiences is an important object of study in this field. While scientific fact-finding plays a crucial role in understanding and tackling the problem of climate change, scholars have pointed out that scientific language often does not resonate with the day-to-day experiences of individuals.
Furthermore, science-based communication is often impaired by jargon, and fails to inspire a sense of urgency and agency (Corner et al. 2018: 5; De Meyer et al. 2021: 2; Marx and Shome 2009: 15 & 26). Therefore, ‘people struggle to create concrete mental images of climate change’ as climate change is mentally experienced when it is psychologically recognized as something close to home (Chadwick 2017: 5). This can result in communication errors between the communicator and his/her audience.
Another problem is that individuals or groups in general have difficulties in ‘processing and responding effectively to information surrounding long-term and complex societal changes’ (Marx and Shome 2009: 1). Therefore, the public has to be informed in a more accessible way in order to convince them to take action.
As a result, scholars are debating whether climate storytelling is a more effective way of conveying scientific knowledge on climate change to a broader public (Bloomfield and Manktelow 2021: 2). Climate storytelling can be described as the embedding of climate change into a story that corresponds more with the personal experiences of individuals. Scientific knowledge would be easier to understand and could initiate a deeper commitment of the individual to address climate change (Harcourt et al. 2021).
Another asset that climate storytelling is said to facilitate is the sense of agency for the fight against climate change. For example, De Meyer et al. propose adding ‘agency as a story structure’ in climate communication (2021: 6). By highlighting agency within the story-plot, examples of action are shown to individuals or groups which help to enhance their sense of efficacy in addressing climate change issues.
In contrast to current approaches in climate communication, story structures are easy to understand and have an ‘inherent plurality and interpretability’ (Harcourt et al. 2021: 3-4). As a result, storytelling provides individuals with more room in finding consistency between the presented (scientific) information and their personal beliefs and experiences on climate change.
Bloomfield and Manktelow (2021: 2) claim that storytelling has the ability to move the current discourse on climate change away from hard-to-understand scientific explanations to less abstract, less intangible and more immediate everyday examples. Storytelling, hence, would enhance everyone’s ability to better understand climate change and act accordingly.
For instance, analogies can simplify the discourse on climate change and therefore improve climate change communication, which in turn can generate a more active response (Bloomfield and Manktelow 2021: 5). This in combination with a constant reiteration of stories on climate change through media outlets will keep the audience engaged with the long-term problem of climate change (De Meyer et al. 2021: 9).
To date, scholarship on science communication has rather neglected the visual dimension of climate storytelling. At the same time, Fridays for Future is an exemplary case for the study of climate storytelling given their tremendous success in mobilizing people around the world to fight climate change. As the movement relies heavily on social/visual media in their strategies of public engagement, a discussion of its visual climate storytelling is hence imperative.
Visualizing Fridays for Future’s climate storytelling
We have examined posts running under the #UprootTheSystem of the official Instagram account of the international edition of Fridays for Future. #UprootTheSystem ran under the movement’s overall demand for climate justice. In particular, FFF sought to shed light on the fact that areas and people located in the Global South will likely be more affected by climate change than the Global North.
Our heuristic analysis draws on existing narrative frameworks discussed in the literature on climate storytelling (e.g. Bloomfield and Manktelow 2021; Jones and Peterson 2017). In our examination, we have identified three visual narrative strategies of public engagement: simplification, personalization and individual action.
The first element of the movement’s visual climate storytelling is simplifying the current discourse on climate change. For instance, parts of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which contains extensive science-based information on global warming, is converted into short sentences and imperatives (see here). Messages are highlighted in bold letters and colors; images of natural disasters visualize the subtext of the post (see Figure 1).
Simplification is used to educate the audience. Individuals are informed about climate change on the basis of three aspects: (1) the certainty of its existence, (2) the urgency to act and (3) the solutions it takes (see here and here). Within each of these individual messages, certain phrases are accentuated in order to get the messages across (see for instance here). Furthermore, FFF provides the viewer with graphs and maps, which highlight the consequences of climate change (see here). Scientific information is thus presented in a simplified and concise manner.
By presenting findings of the IPCC report in such a way, knowledge about climate science arguably becomes more accessible. As a result a wider collective can be engaged in the fight against climate change. Simultaneously, these messages also instill individuals with a sense of responsibility and equip them with knowledge on appropriate action.
The second element of the movement’s visual climate storytelling is personalization. This comprises for instance self-made videos in which activists tell stories, make statements and articulate their demands towards political leaders. Often these videos take place in a domestic setting, for instance at the home of activists, or outside, usually in urban space, during climate protests.
For the global climate strike on 24 September, activists in one location, for instance Mexico, have video called fellow protestors in other locations, for instance Colombia (see here). In these live calls activists show their surrounding area including fellow protesters and give an account of their activities. Often they explain the local background of their climate protests and report about their experiences of the day (see screenshot below and other examples here and here).
In line with the movement’s master narrative of climate justice, viewers learn to what extent the consequences of climate change differ according to local conditions. A common metaphor, which is often used by climate activists, is the claim that while people may be sitting in the same storm, they are not sitting in the same boat (see here for instance).
Some of the young activists also entwine their climate messages with self-made performances and collages made popular by video-sharing platforms like TikTok (see also here). Memes are also used by climate activists as a tool of visual storytelling (see here). As a particular form of self-expression, memes function through humorous interventions and show a personal(ized) way of engaging with the topic of climate change.
Both performances and memes are exemplary of the visual codes that FFF is utilizing in its climate storytelling in order to appeal to the younger consumers of new digital media. While the visual strategies of personalization arguably resonate better with the everyday experience of (younger) individuals, they, after all, put local environmental concerns and issues into a more global context.
The third aspect of FFF’s visual climate storytelling can be called individual action. This comprises images of the actual protests of #UprootTheSystem. These include single photographs, collages and short videos of individuals, groups and masses (see for instance here). The protestors hold banners, posters and signs, which contain demands, ironic phrases and/or political messages (see Figure 4).
While this form of protest is itself visual, important to mention, we believe, is that the activists are showing the ways to take action against climate change. Research has shown that the Covid-19 pandemic heavily affected FFF’s activism, which essentially relies on the organization of mass protests in public space (Haßler et. al 2021; Hunger & Hutter 2021; Sorce & Dumitrica 2021). The Corona-related restrictions of banning public gatherings, hence, dealt a significant blow to the climate storytelling abilities of the activists.
Therefore, it is vital for the movement to visualize agency and show, through images of action, a global audience that individuals can make a difference in the current climate crisis. This form of visual storytelling corresponds to the observation made by scholars that FFF has altered mainstream climate change discourse by instilling the general idea that ‘every individual carries responsibility and can provoke change in his/her everyday acts’ (Drieschova 2021: 5).
We have examined the question of how FFF visually tells the story of climate change to global audiences in its official Instagram account. We found that visual climate storytelling of FFF is characterized by three aspects: simplification, personalization and individual action. While we found that FFF is also utilizing analogies (in particular linking climate change to Covid-19) as a narrative strategy of public engagement, they did not visualize it sufficiently yet.
The success of the movement as a global storyteller of climate change makes it worthy of further studies in narrative research and environmental communication. These include questions, for instance, about the use of visual analogies, the gendered dimension of FFF’s climate storytelling (the apparent focus on young female activists) or its reliance on the visibility of large-scale protests, which arguably helps to sustain the narrative that it is practicing grassroots democracy and endows its political claims with legitimacy.
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About the Authors
David Shim is Senior Research Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. David is interested in the visual and spatial dimension of global politics and works at the intersection of International Relations, Geography and Area Studies. At the Centre, David is working on visual narratives of climate change with a focus on Fridays for Future.
Gijs de Vries is a MA student of International Relations at the University of Groningen. He has a background in Cultural Studies and in Political Sciences. In his master’s thesis, he analyzed the intricacies of US Arctic geopolitics and the impact thereof on US-Russian cooperation in the Arctic region. Besides geopolitics, Gijs is also interested in the field of Environmental Security and in the practices of (state) policy-crafting and implementation.