Accepted Paper:

Bearing witness to climate change. The creation of an icon for climate change communication in popular science magazines.  


Dorothea Born (University of Vienna)

Paper short abstract:

Within climate change communication, polar bears serve as icons to stir emotions and raise awareness. In this paper, I trace the process of the iconization of polar bears within popular science magazines, comparing German GEO and US National Geographic.

Paper long abstract:

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges for humanity in the 21st century. It is also an issue notoriously hard to communicate and it remains an open question how best to construct affected publics within climate change communication. In this context, images and visualizations provide powerful tools to illustrate this abstract and global topic, addressing emotions unmediated by verbal arguments. One example of a visual communication strategy is the use of the highly emotionalized icon of the polar bear. Images of polar bears apparently lost on melting ice floe have become the poster child for climate change communication and several organizations and companies, from Greenpeace to Coca Cola, use polar bears in their climate change campaigns.

This study examines the central role of popular science magazines in establishing the iconic meaning of polar bears. Popular science magazines constitute spaces where scientific knowledge is selected, transformed and recontextualized in order to pursue specific communication goals and raise public awareness, thus lending themselves as excellent spaces to study climate change communication. Comparing US National Geographic and German GEO I trace the process of iconization of these large mammals, looking at how polar bears were established as icons for climate change and what creates their effectiveness. I thereby compare the different political cultures of the two magazines' countries of issue, highlighting how national contexts shape and impact climate change communication strategies. My study thus opens up further questions on how visual communication strategies influence public awareness within different cultural contexts.

Panel T032
Science Communication