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The Feeling of Red and Blue—A Constructive Critique of Color Mapping in Visual Climate Change Communication

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Handbook of Climate Change Communication: Vol. 2

Part of the book series: Climate Change Management ((CCM))


This article is guided by the thesis that color is both—a rational way to structure and encode data visually, and a place where emotions like concern, fear and alarm can connect—and thus cultural readings can start from. This becomes particularly clear in visual climate communication where the colors blue and red are used in global future temperature maps and scenario graphs. Here, red colors are used to mark maximum values, temperature increases, great risk, anomalies and worst case scenarios like the RCP8.5 scenario, whereas blue colors denote cold temperatures but also illustrate best case scenarios. In order to analyze the different cultural layers that get triggered by color, the paper presents results derived by different methodologies. On the one hand image analysis methods of picture theory are used; on the other hand, qualitative interviews performed with a small group of recipients evaluate the thesis derived from theory. For this purpose, the author team, which is formed by a cultural/media scholar and a scholar from computer graphics, has experimentally altered the color scheme of one of the most important figures of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report: the map of historic temperature increases from the IPCC AR5 WGI (figure SPM.1). Testing six different color schemes the team investigated how the perception, emotional reaction and understanding is altered if the scheme employing blue, bright red and purple is replaced by other color schemes. Besides the original IPCC color scheme, the team tested blue-grey-black, green-purple and purple-green as well as less dazzling shades of red. With their study, the authors are able to indicate how the understanding and credibility of climate change visualization is influenced by color, and how different color spectrums significantly change the emotional and associative reaction of the visualization in relation to the recipient group. The outcome of the research provides a guidance to estimate the impact of color in respect to the aim of visually communicating the risks of climate change and convincing different recipient groups about the gravity of the issue.

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  1. 1.

    In the original red-grey color map from the brewer color set we replaced the red part with blue values from another color scheme.

  2. 2.

    From 22 interviewees 15 person were prestented map I and III in comparison, 5 persons saw I and V and 2 were presented map III and V in comparison.


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The authors especially thank Desiree Förster who helped them conducting and assessing the interviews.

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Correspondence to Birgit Schneider .

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Schneider, B., Nocke, T. (2018). The Feeling of Red and Blue—A Constructive Critique of Color Mapping in Visual Climate Change Communication. In: Leal Filho, W., Manolas, E., Azul, A., Azeiteiro, U., McGhie, H. (eds) Handbook of Climate Change Communication: Vol. 2. Climate Change Management. Springer, Cham.

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