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Bence uses writing to investigate graphic design from unconventional angles, such as economic and cultural production, critical theory and media analysis.



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Critiques of communicating the climate



Contemporary climate discourse has certain recurring tendencies that narrow the territory of discussion, and in turn, action. The following sections identify and critique three communication choices in climate discourse with the aim of widening the domain of climate communication, and developing more effective ways to communicate the crisis.


We

The term “we” is often employed when describing engagement with the climate. The implication of this phrasing is that humanity shares the goal of slowing down this existential risk. It is not difficult to find participants who are actively against this: individuals, companies and governments with different interests. An apparent example is the tension between fossil fuel companies and coastal populations. Various governments too have differing interests, with the Pentagon classing the changing climate as a substantial threat, as sea level rises damage coastal US army bases for instance, while the Kremlin can see geopolitical potential in the melting Siberian and Arctic ice, as it opens up access to more natural resources and trade routes. “We” also implies an equal distribution of effects, while it is apparent that the Global South and those in conditions of material difficulty will have it worse, the wealthy can with ease relocate, even to another planet. (This is with reference to Elon Musk’s grand project of establishing a Mars colony. The refuge of this colony would only be accessible to those with extreme wealth, and everyone else would have to endure a potentially unliveable Earth.)


Capital

Discourse is also very forgiving of capital accumulation as a driving factor of humanity’s self-destruction. Growth targets articulated in GDP are crude and one-dimensional measures, which increase when natural resources are extracted or even when disasters occur. GDP ignores environmental and social costs to a supposed growth. Economies’ obsession with this symbolic figure – symbolic as it does not directly correlate to human well-being, unlike a measure such as Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) – aims for the impossible: infinite growth on a finite planet. The failure to scrutinise political economy is a symptom of what Fisher called “capitalist realism”, ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.’ (2009, p. 2) If climate is to be communicated credibly, capital has to be at the forefront.


Climate disasters are not taking place


Through a series of essays about the Gulf War, Baudrillard argued that media representations of the Gulf War merely showcased stylised misrepresentations of actual events. ‘The war is also pure and speculative, to the extent that we do not see the real event that it could be or that it would signify.’ (1991, p. 29) Baudrillard’s hyperreality (1981, p. 1), ‘A real without origin or reality’,  explains the divorced state of events and their representations: that of the war (which he argued was purely speculative as an event too) and what Western viewers saw on television. In the same manner, imagery of climate caused disasters, such as the wildfires in California or Australia, appear exhausted of meaning when communicated and spectated through various media. The issue of communicating the climate is therefore twofold: it is not only about what messages are being sent, but how they are received. Another way to put it: How is the disconnect of reality and its representation interpreted? Regardless of how climate messaging is stylised, be it alarming, scientific or carefully crafted, their messages can become neutral and exhausted as a result of the lack of direct reality in their communication.

These non-exhaustive and incomplete segments demonstrate that communicating the climate is larger than what communication designers usually recognise, highlighting the role of political economy and postmodern culture as challenges in this communication. Baudrillard’s analysis in particular poses a difficult question to practitioners: How can meaning be maintained in a cultural environment where it is disappearing?



References

Baudrillard, J. (1981) Simulacra and Simulation. Reprint, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Baudrillard, J. (1991) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Reprint, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. Alresford: Zero books.



© 2021 Bence Iványi

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