The desire to stir a debate around climate change is not an excuse for sensationalist images and language that demean immigrants.
The effects of climate change are so hard to imagine that we should welcome an exhibition of Postcards from the Future’ that promises “Images that bring ideas to life and frame the climate debate in a way that everyone can understand”. Unfortunately the debate it frames is dangerous and the main reason that it can be readily understood is that it fits all too easily with existing prejudices.
The pictures are artfully composed photomontages that juxtapose iconic London landmarks with eye-catching climate impacts – for example the Household Cavalry ride down a sand-strewn Whitehall on camels; an oil palm plantation grows in Hyde Park; and people skate on the Thames after the Gulf Stream packs in.
The creators, Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones, assure us that they “researched different scientific projections”. Really? Not one of these images reflects any real climate scenario for London. They are pure science-fiction.
Certainly they are striking and win attention, but at a price. Public acceptance of climate change is still weak and 55% of people believe that climate change has been exaggerated for political ends. Fantasy images actively feed that public denial and with it the widespread assumption that climate change is conjectural and without firm basis in fact.
However the greatest concern with this show is not that it parts with reality, but that it speaks all too well to real prejudices against immigrants “swamping” British culture. This is a recurring theme. One postcard shows Asian peasants working in paddy fields in the shadow of Big Ben.
Two other postcards in the series show shantytowns around Nelson’s Column and Buckingham Palace.
These images cause deep disquiet for those who work with refugees and immigrants. Jonathan Ellis, policy director at the Refugee Council, calls them “lazy and unhelpful” at a time when “we need fresh and creative messages, and a fair and rational debate based on the facts”.
“Producing sensationalist pictures which fall back on cheap stereotypes of refugees do not help anyone’s cause,” says Vaughan Jones, the chief executive of Praxis, a London-based charity that provides practical support for refugees and asylum seekers. “The issue is too serious for this inaccurate treatment.”
Hannah Smith from the Climate Outreach Information Network runs a programme that brings together over 30 refugee, human rights and environment organisations. She argues that the images give an entirely erroneous impression and that “the actual patterns of migration are far more likely to be the movement of people inside existing national borders, or, in the case of the UK, from within the European Union. To suggest that there will be mass migration from the [global] south is misleading and feeds xenophobia.”
These criticism are exacerbated by the language used in the captions. The caption for the Buckingham Palace shantytown talks of the royal family being surrounded by “overwhelming numbers of immigrants”. Another caption, for a picture of monkeys on the balustrade of St Paul’s Cathedral describes them as “a new breed of tropical immigrants reminiscing about equatorial days”. This is a misapplication of language that Hannah Smith regards as deeply insulting.
Any representations of climate change enter a complex psychological, social and political landscape created by over twenty years of confusion, denial and anger. An aspect of this is that the perpetrators of climate change are constantly seekijng to absolve themselves of their ethical responsibility for the historical problem or the failure to take collective action. I predict that we are heading for a bitter blame game and, judging by the usual human response, the most consistent mechanism for dealing with collective guilt is to blame the victim. The racist right are already sniffing round the issue of climate migration and will try to take hold of this agenda.
When I look at the postcards from the perspective of refugee organisations (indeed with any kind of progressive politics at all) these concerns seem so sensible and self-evident that I wonder why no-one involved with commissioning, producing, or promoting these images thought to raise them. The entire approach of the postcards is provocative: taking symbols of British cultural identify and contrasting them with caricatures of Third World poverty. The impression that they give is that we have been invaded by an alien horde, and that we are the victims, not them.
Imagine that this approach had been taken with the climate change context: Westminster Abbey covered with Arabic signs and flanked by minarets, camels racing in the Derby, Beefeaters are replaced by Romani…etc etc. Would this be accepted for public display anywhere, not least the usually extremely sensitive Museum of London.
So this raises a fascinating question: why did the cover story of “climate change” permit the enthusiastic promotion of images and language that would be normally be considered unacceptable in a public exhibition?
One reason is that we have already come to “frame” climate change in this way. Impacts are invariably presented as the crude data of square kilometres flooded or numbers of people displaced. There is still a painful lack of elaboration or analysis of the real political and social impacts of these changes – who will be affected, how will they adapt and where will they go.
This in turn reflects the disturbingly limited range of voices that can be heard talking about climate change. While environmentalists have dominated the public discourse from the outset, it has only been in the past five years that development organisations and unions have become involved.
Human rights and refugee organisations are only now fully recognising the importance of climate change and they are struggling to find their niche and be heard on the issue. “We operate under such constant pressures, both internally and externally, that we have been in the bunker for far too long”, says Jonathan Ellis.
Even the core term “climate refugee”, used universally by environmental organisations and throughout the postcard captions, is inaccurate, argues Vaughan Jones. It took decades of hard campaigning to get refugees protected under international law and “the term must be preserved as a legal status for those fleeing persecution”.
None of this is to doubt the sincerity of the photo-artists or those organising the exhibition. Nor does it imply that climate change is so complex that it cannot be communicated to the general public. All it shows is that climate change is a challenging area, framed by denial, guilt and discrimination, that requires the same intelligence and sensitivity as any exhibition on gender, race or class.
These images deliberately chose to create a reaction use extreme and sometimes ludicrous contrast. But they could have shown many different scenarios that would have been far more realistic and engaging- images of adaptation and co-operation and real impacts that were well referenced by the science. The history of immigration in Britain has always been one of immigrants adding new ideas, energy and diversity to Britain, so could not images of climate migrants have shown them dding to British culture and our capacity to adapt and change.
This is a longer version of the article that appears on The Guardian Blog