In the United States, climate change is popularly visualized as distant, abstract, and apocalyptic. In a 2018 study conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, 61% of American adults cited that they are worried about climate change and yet only 41% reported that they believe climate change will harm them personally in their lifetime. Moreover, 70% of American adults think climate change will harm future generations and 70% think climate change will harm plants, animals, and people in developing countries more than people in the United States.Climate change is therefore imagined as both temporally and spatially distant—or, as a phenomenon that will impact both future generations and also other people and other species (such as polar bears in the far North) more than Americans here and now. Abstract, zoomed-out images of global heatmaps and “hockey stick” graphs further distance popular perceptions of climate change. A sense of everyday relevance is lost in translation. But perhaps most concerning about popular imaginings of climate change in the United States is the predominant visualization of climate change as a planetary-scale apocalypse.
Images of the Earth on fire and scenes of global, mass destruction are problematic because they gloss over and obscure differences in degree of impact and complicity. An apocalyptic image lumps climate violence into an amorphous experience with a universal impact and an indeterminate origin. Yet the severity of experience and risk are not indiscriminate. Rob Nixon emphasizes how “It is [the] people lacking resources who are the principal casualties of slow violence.Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives.”This “slow violence” or, “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all”is evident, for example, with the death and displacement of the poorest residents of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina.And moreover, with the differential response in recovery and aid given to the richest and neglected from the poorest, predominantly black and brown communities of color in the New York/New Jersey region following Hurricane Sandy.
The most severely impacted by climate violence are also contributing the least to it. Indeed, the largest emitters of greenhouse gases are the richest and most able to withstand and recover from the violent impacts of climate change. In a striking illustration of this point, billionaires are increasingly investing in climate shelters reminiscent of nuclear bomb bunkers.And this is at the heels of an increased interest among the super-rich (think: Elon Musk) in space colonies on Mars.Survival, so it seems, will be determined not by public policy or a commitment to justice but rather, by wealth.
Climate change clearly requires specific and informed economic and social policies that acknowledge histories of discrimination and violence and work to ameliorate extreme inequities of wealth within the United States. A more concerted focus on the different needs and concerns of communities most at risk—including more affordable and safe housing, access to stable employment, and political representation—should be the priority. The predominant, Earth on fire/apocalyptic visualization of climate change, however, orients policy towards the planetary as opposed to the community-scale. And with the advent and precipitous rise of the idea of the “Anthropocene”—or, of a supposed new geological epoch ushered in by the environmentally destructive actions of a universalized and undifferentiated “we” as “humanity”—“global management” solutions (such as, for instance, geoengineering) are increasingly proposed and designed by just a few, select “experts” as opposed to by a democratic consortium of people including those most severely impacted by climate violence.
Using historical, sociological, visual, and discourse analysis approaches, my doctoral dissertation traces the emergence and manifestation of Anthropocene visualities/discourse within a United States historical context. My dissertation work is principally motivated by a concern with the planetary-scale policy proposals emergent from Anthropocene visualities/discourse, as opposed to community-scale economic and social policies capable of addressing the slow violence of climate change.
Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., & Gustafson, A. (2018). Climate change in the American mind: December 2018. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Nixon, R. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 4
ibid, p. 2
Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. London, UK: Penguin Random House UK.
Superstorm Research Lab. (2013). A Tale of Two Sandys. White Paper.
O’Connell, M. (2018, February 15). Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand. The Guardian. London, UK.
Carrol, R. (2013, July 17). Elon Musk’s mission to Mars. The Guardian. London, UK.