The power of images in global climate change discourse: A critical visual rhetorical analysis of Our Changing Planet



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Global climate change is a highly controversial issue that draws strong emotional and conflicting responses, ranging from total denial to doomsday scenarios. The aim of this study was to examine the United States Global Change Research Program’s annual report series, "Our Changing Planet" (an initiative founded by President Reagan in 1989), and to analyze governmental rhetoric on the subject and specifically the way in which each administration used its power to control the dissemination of global climate change knowledge to the general public, to promote its own environmental ideology, and to corral the power of climate change scientists. Much of the impact of "Our Changing Planet" lies within its rhetoric, especially the pathos, exerted through its visual images. This study focused on the types of messages conveyed through the reports’ visual images, and the way they changed over time, the altering relationships between images and text, and the correlation between those changes and the always volatile political landscape surrounding the global climate change debate. Utilizing an application of social semiotic theory, I analyzed the visual images in the annual reports, ranging from 1990 until 2013, not only to ascertain their ability to influence the intended audience, but also to examine the potential relationships between producer and viewer. This, combined with critical discourse analysis, allowed both a study of the visual images and of the ideologies surrounding their use. The results of the study demonstrated that each of the four presidential administrations used its power to a greater or lesser extent to control the content of Our Changing Planet, and thus to influence the global climate change debate in line with its own ideology and political motives. The study also, however, revealed the power wielded by the upper echelon of climate change scientists (a so-called scientific élite) and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to safeguard research funding and control over scientific knowledge.



Visual Rhetoric, Global Climate Change, Critical Discourse Analysis, Political Ideology