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Climate Research

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CR 22:87-95 (2002)  -  doi:10.3354/cr022087

Picturing climate change

Stefan Brönnimann*

Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Hallerstr. 12, 3012 Bern, Switzerland and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Department of Planetary Sciences, University of Arizona, PO Box 210092, Tucson, Arizona 85721-0092, USA

ABSTRACT: The debate on climate change and anthropogenic influence on climate has a long history, which involves more than just scientific findings and meteorological observations. In this paper, the question of how the scientific concept of climate change has been communicated to the public, in the past and at present is studied using pictures and historical analyses. Publications popularising climate change today are sometimes illustrated with pictures showing palm trees and glaciers together in one scene. This is nothing new: the motif of palm trees and glaciers was used for the same purpose early in the 20th century. Several examples of such illustrations are presented and discussed in a historical context. The basic meaning of such pictures is that palms stand for warm climate and glaciers for coldness, and both together signify climatic change. The use of this motif to illustrate climate change originates in the popularisation of the theory of ice ages and climates in Earth¹s history, which took place towards the end of the 19th century. At about the same time, the motif of palms and glaciers was also used in tourist advertisement for certain alpine destinations. In this case, the motif stands for the variety of the alpine landscapes, which offer spectacular high-mountain scenery and exotic flora close to each other. It is suggested that the use of this motif to illustrate climate change in the early 20th century expresses an ambivalence towards climate change, consisting of age-old concerns about extremes of climate on the one hand and tourist illusions of a warm climate on the other. Towards the end of the 20th century, the motif appears in context with the popularisation of the concept of anthropogenic global warming. The ambivalence has given rise to a clear negative value judgement. Today, photos of recent extreme weather events are used more often than palm trees and glaciers to illustrate climate change.

KEY WORDS: Climate change · Climate and society · History of climate research

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