Global warming is a word brimming with meaning. When you hear it, you probably think about more than just the green house effect – maybe the Great Barrier Reef and its most recent beaching event, the renewable energy debate, perhaps even climate threats to global security. I am, however, increasingly concerned that this is not the response – that we aren’t thinking about global warming at all. That we are becoming bored.
If we look at climate change through the lens of semiotics – the science of signs (a symbol, word or image that conveys meaning) – it becomes apparent there is a growing phenomenon that can only be described as ‘global warming fatigue’, where the connotations behind climate change are changing, and not in a good way. Global warming a term that has been used so frequently and freely that the fundamental, inherent threats that the process represents have been lost. Instead, the term has become almost annoying; a cliché that makes you feel guilty when you fill up the car, or forget to turn a light off.
The problem is perhaps most apparent when you do a google search; ‘global warming’ instantly generates a swathe of unpleasant images. Some concentrate on an Armageddon colour scheme of red, black and brown, others depict cartoons of earth catching alight like a marshmallow, more still present nihilistic comparisons between the lush pastures of today and the cracked and barren earth of tomorrow.
These pictures offend us. It isn’t surprising we are instinctively repulsed by smoke stacks belching grime into the air, which is why this method works so well in advertising; but there is a catch. Too much exposure and the brain will begin to switch off our reactions in an attempt to block out the stream of guilt, anxiety and helplessness that a stranded polar bear incites.
The Stuart Hall Encoding/Decoding Model (1973) provides further insight into this process. If the left of the diagram represents the creators of an image (engaged in the process of encoding) and the right the audience (engaged in decoding), it becomes clear that the two processes are interdependent and subjective. Hence in the example of climate change, while an image may be created with good intent, the framework within which it was received or ‘decoded’ can be inherently different, thus changing our understanding of the image. If our subjective framework is defined by overexposure and insensitivity, then perhaps it is not so surprising when your average citizen won’t engage.
A Matter of Debate
Another aspect of the climate crisis that is having a negative impact on the semiotics of climate change are the continued arguments concerning both the legitimacy of climate science, and what we should do about the threats we face. So far, a lot of these discussions have not been constructive – uneducated denialists and hard core eco-warriors alike are enhancing a lack of engagement in the topic. Again it is down to the Hall model; increasingly heated arguments have tainted ‘climate change’ with an intrinsic sense of conflict, as something that is best avoided to keep the peace. For these reasons we dodge the issue, preferring to discuss the latest heat wave around your neighbour’s BBQ, but not why the weather is so extreme.
The Pale Blue Dot
So what is the solution? I believe it is vitally important that we move away from the fatalistic images that are so common on the internet and social media, and turn instead towards a semiotic message that unifies humanity, not pulls us apart.
‘The pale blue dot’ is such an image. It was taken more than 6 billion kilometers from earth in early 1990 by the Voyager 1 Space Probe as it left our solar system. Earth is caught in a band of sunlight, and less than a pixel in size, is dwarfed by the black backdrop that is space. It was this image that famously inspired Carl Sagan’s book ‘Pale Blue Dot’.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” – Sagan
Perhaps the most important aspect of this image, and Sagan’s work which denotes it, is that no matter what subjective framework of knowledge you bring to the experience, no matter your political orientation, cultural background or social context, you cannot deny that global warming affects us all, and is threatening our home.
This is the image that should be the face of climate action – this shift in approach would enhance a sense of inclusivity, and shared ownership; that this is our place. In doing so we might just move away from the ‘he said, she said’ arguments and instead focus on a response that involves all of us, and that targets what we actually need to do.
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves… to me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”