Davos Agenda

How open-access visuals of the natural world can revolutionize climate reporting

Despite a fast-developing nature and climate crisis, climate reporting in the media is declining.

Despite a fast-developing nature and climate crisis, climate reporting in the media is declining. Image: Reuben Pillay/Climate Visuals Countdown

Colin Butfield
Executive Director, Studio Silverback
Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Illah Nourbakhsh
Professor, Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University
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Davos Agenda

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  • Despite a fast-developing nature and climate crisis, climate reporting in the media is declining.
  • Visuals of the natural world are powerful tools of storytelling that can inspire and influence, but footage on climate change is hard to access.
  • Open-access visuals could break barriers around availability, equity and quality, with a broader impact on climate reporting, revolutionizing the space and available tools for changemakers.

Impacts of the nature and climate crisis are gaining pace. July 2023 was the hottest month recorded in human history. Weather, climate and water disasters have increased five-fold in 50 years, accounting for half of all disasters and three-quarters of all reported economic losses. In response, new solutions are appearing worldwide, which could inspire bold ideas to spread across generations, cultures and continents.

Yet today, traditional media platforms are not keeping pace with reporting on these challenges and opportunities. Whilst two-thirds of people globally believe we are in a climate emergency, reports suggest an 11% drop in climate reporting between 2021 and 2022 – with nature reporting receiving eight times less coverage than climate. Only 2.8% of TV and film scripts include language related to nature and climate issues.

The current model for commissioning filmed content has three primary barriers: lack of availability, equity and quality. Those barriers could evaporate with an open repository of assets – such as Open Planet, launching globally in early 2024. The community interest company’s mission is to create and share content that empowers changemakers to explain better and respond to our planet’s greatest challenges.

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The high-quality visual assets, data and stories are open access and free to unlock persuasive and powerful storytelling, for which there has never been a more vital need than due to the planetary crisis we face today.

Documentary footage paired with geospatial imagery of our changing planet – from organizations such as EarthTime – helps to connect the dots between the micro-stories of individual change and the macro drivers of systems change. Stories capture people’s attention and make it easier to process information when mental resources are constrained. Stories can also reduce defensiveness, teach complicated concepts, change individuals’ behaviours and promote social change.

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3 barriers to climate reporting

1. The availability of footage

Most of the planet’s urgent problems are not captured by trained filmmakers capable of securing high-quality, credible and inspiring footage. Despite a revolution in distribution models, television commissioners decide what gets filmed and where. They decide what stories can be told based on what makes commercial sense. Amid growing financial pressure, commissioners increasingly turn from high-quality, factual films towards lower-cost reality and entertainment formats.

The Open Planet repository, for instance, would bring together powerful footage and geospatial data visualizations that track the most urgent changes to the planet based on what stories must be told. By documenting visually the archetypical challenges and solutions associated with nature and climate crisis, the availability of filmed content for anyone will increase exponentially.

2. Equitable access to content

Most of the footage that exists and could be used to support storytelling is rights-restricted by big media companies. Purchasing footage is prohibitively expensive for new generations of content creators. Even communities featured in film content often don’t have the right to use this footage to tell their stories.

A significant library of content, free of charge to global changemakers, could allow anyone to illustrate challenges and frame their solutions cost-effectively and compellingly.

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An example of the positive impact that equitable access brings can be seen in a new landmark climate campaign, Planet India, inspired by the country’s historic G20 Presidency. The storytelling campaign spotlights incredible stories of ingenuity and innovation from across India, showing how people are responding to the planetary crisis.

The high-quality footage captured for the campaign has been made available to others for free on Open Planet, creating the most extensive, most powerful open library of Indian climate and nature footage in history. Leading content creators from across India are among the first to use the footage to create their own unique stories, inviting others to do the same.

3. Quality of footage

Where there is footage, it is difficult for storytellers to be sure that content is current, authentic, and delivered to a high standard and scientifically accurate. Open Planet aims to make available myriad stories for diverse audiences that can be developed by building on the assurance of scientifically accurate and informed visual assets that represent current realities, demonstrate changes to the natural world, and are delivered by world-class film crews.

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What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

Today’s world needs stories that allow us to see the damage humans are inflicting with our eyes. We need stories to imagine a restored world within reach but not yet real enough for people to picture it or believe it possible. We need the ability for anyone from any background to share their story of innovation and opportunity, inspiring new possibilities and informed decisions that are grounded in today’s realities.

After a decade of diligent work by a coalition of top academics, world-class filmmakers, data visualization experts and diverse changemakers, that future is finally becoming a reality.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Davos AgendaClimate and NatureNature and BiodiversityOcean
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