How a climate crisis graphic became a meme

Ed Hawkins’ data visualisation, Warming Stripes, has appeared everywhere from The Guardian’s front page to meteorologists’ ties.

warming-stripes
Warming Stripes

It started at Hay Literary Festival. Professor Ed Hawkins was trying to find a way to communicate climate change to an audience that might not be able to interpret scientific graphics or data.

“I wanted to strip away the unnecessary complicated detail, so I tried coloured stripes,” he says.

Those stripes — shades of red and blue representing hot and cold temperatures — chart temperature changes from 1850 to 2018, running from left to right. They look like a bar code, albeit a vibrant one with a serious message. Hawkins, a professor of climate science at the University of Reading, says that the impact was immediately obvious.

“I saw the pennies drop — people could see the changes in the stark visuals. It was undeniable in its simplicity.”

That data visualisation was based on local temperatures for the festival’s location in rural Wales. Since the 2018 festival, Hawkins has worked on a graphic for global temperatures. Most recently, it took centre stage at a very different festival: as the backdrop for Enter Shikari’s set at Reading.

Hawkins has no formal creative background, but enjoys “experimenting.” He adds, “climate change affects all of us and so needs to be communicated clearly.” On 21 June 2019, the summer solstice, he launched a website where users can view and download climate stripes for the cities they live in, from Vienna to Verona. So far there have been more than a million downloads.

From knitting groups to Tesla showrooms

How do people use the designs? Hawkins says that people post them onto social media platforms while some knit the stripes into pieces of clothing or decorate their nails with the design. One person has even painted their Tesla in the stripes. It’s also appeared on the cover of this month’s The Economist magazine, The Guardian’s front page for Climate Strike week, as well as on newspapers from Austria to Brazil.

There are a few factors to the graphic’s success. As the examples show, the design is easy to scale up or down, and works across many platforms, from digital to physical reproductions.

It is also now available for specific regions. You can visualise data for individual countries, and with some locations you can find out the for specific cities.

This means that people feel more connected to their surroundings. As Hawkins says about the original graphic for the Hay Festival, the design highlighted that climate change was no longer about “abstract concepts” to people but “real changes around them”.

As it is so “visual and stark”, it’s a natural conversation-starter. And because “we are trained to associate hot with red and cold with blue,” it’s instantly understandable. That simplicity has another benefit: it’s also able to communicate complexity in an accessible way. Though the trend is clearly towards warmer global temperature, there are years where temperatures might drop or increase.

“You see the odd red stripe near the beginning, and a blue stripe — though not recently — at the other end sometimes,” Hawkins says. “As scientists, we understand and discuss how temperatures vary and hopefully the oscillation in the graphics starts conversations about what else is going on among non-scientists.”

The diversity of users is what please Hawkins most. As the stripes are so shareable, they reach audiences that might not be primarily talking about annual temperature changes — the knitting groups and car enthusiasts, for example.

This year, Hawkins launched the first #ShowYourStripes day to bring awareness to the campaign. This has been co-ordinated with a perhaps unexpected source: TV meteorologists. So far they have worn it on ties or belts that loop around dresses. Hawkins says this makes perfect sense: “They are trusted scientists who appear to the public everyday — they are fantastic communicators.”

Free and easy

Though Hawkins says that the start of Climate Strike week has been particularly busy, it is not his first brush with viral fame. His GIF, showing the ‘spiral’ of global temperatures from 1850—2016, was used as a projection during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Hawkins says he had no idea it was coming. He was building flat-pack furniture, watching the show on TV and found out along with millions of viewers across the globe that his design was being used.

Has he ever been tempted to make money from the graphics? Hawkins says no — though he is often asked that question. “Because we made it free, it’s being used more,” he says. “If we had charged, it would have had less reach, and more reach is more important than a few quid.”

By making it free, it’s being used in more innovative ways, Hawkins says, like on a tram line in Germany as a way to promote the use of public transport. Someone in Spain painted a wall in their town with the stripes. It also means it’s more accessible to people in “developing nations”, Hawkins says. “It’s essential to make all these sources freely available, so that we can continue seeing people use them in all corners of the world, from Nigeria to Kuala Lumpur.”

“We are relatively protected here in the western world, but poorer countries don’t have this benefit,” he adds.

There is also a practical benefit to this; providing a free resource means you save time. People don’t have to ask to use it, and there’s no fuss over licensing. Anytime that it has been used on merchandise — clothing, for instance — Hawkins has insisted the profits are donated to charity.

Designing for the masses

Hawkins’ warming stripes are part of a wider trend in the climate change movement where design resources have been made available for people to use for free.

Glug, a creative community based in the UK with offices worldwide, launched a database for protest posters in conjunction with Climate Strike week. Pete Bowker, Glug’s CEO, says that it’s about raising engagement in the protest movement.

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A design by Ben Mottershead for Glug’s database

Aware that not everyone is available to strike off work, Glug hopes that having the designs freely available means that people can feel like they’re taking part by sharing the designs on social media.

The global activist group 350.org also launched a “Green New Deal Arts Kit”, a tool kit which provides people with advice on making protest signs as well as designs to download. David Solnit, who created the toolkit, which is available to download through a Google Drive document, says that “being able to create and mobilise the arts is an essential part of any campaign and movement”.

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  • Neil Littman September 29, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    This infographic (a much clearer term to me than ‘meme’) says it all so clearly. Where we were, where we are today and what direction we might be heading. It may be small increments but the message is visually clear. Would like to hear what the climate change deniers have to say.

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