Red Futures: The Use of Color in Scientific Climate Graphs

Saturday, 14 February 2015: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Room 210AB (San Jose Convention Center)
Birgit Schneider,University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
Rising red curves, glowing red globes and red bars belong to the well-established graphic repertoire of climate change research. Such images show Earth under the conditions of the new era called “anthropocene”. Even though the graphs originate from science, climate pictures today should be called political images: In climate change discourse they not only have become an important vehicle to transport the risk-relevant findings of climate research to policy makers, stakeholders and the public; often they are used as instruments in the fight for convictions, decisions and actions: the pictures are produced to change what they show. It’s the symbolic complexity of the color red in particular which serves as color for temperature, highlight, devastation and alarm at the same time. Therefore mythical narrations of the end of times return with new clothes: in the scientific dry and sober language of “future scenarios” and “pathways”. In my talk I will address some of the widespread icons of climate change expert graphs from a visual and media studies perspective. In the first instance, I will reflect on the general invisibility of most climate change phenomena which led to the perception of “global image warming”: only with the help of visualizations climate warming got observable. Without the graphs and maps scientists wouldn’t have learned about global warming. Starting on this basis I will discuss the ambiguous socio-political roles of recent scientific climate pictures in relation to the use of color. To highlight my arguments I will also analyze the expert graphs in comparison to contemporary art works dealing with the issue of climate science.