A trove of free stock images seeks to broaden how we picture climate change

Bigger picture.
Bigger picture.
Image: Bret Hartman / TED
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Polar bears, burning forests, and billowing smokestacks are the most common stock images to accompany articles about climate change. But the scope of the crisis is much broader and more nuanced than cute Arctic creatures or doomsday hellscapes.

Two efforts introduced at the recent TED Countdown conference on the environment seeks to improve the pool of imagery for these stories and, in effect, bring people a global picture of the climate change emergency. They’ve arrived just in time for media coverage of the UN’s upcoming COP26 meeting in Glasgow, where government representatives from around the world will negotiate a coordinated response to climate change.

Free stock photos vetted by climate scientists

Climate Visuals is a library of 100 high-quality photographs, free for editorial publications, educators, or nonprofits. Selected from a pool of 5,000 submissions, a panel of climate scientists and communications experts reviewed the photographs based on an established set of criteria, and rejected any staged photo-ops.

Power source in rural life, two men by a pond, washing and bathing by three windmills generating power.
Wind energy in rural India.
Image: Amitava Chandra / Climate Visuals Countdown

Most of the photos on Climate Visuals evoke a hopeful aspect. “The climate crisis can be overwhelming. It’s depressing, so you need to have a little bit of optimism,” says Toby Smith, a veteran photographer who serves as Climate Visuals’ program lead. “If you show the the danger and the possible solution, that’s a pretty powerful narrative.”

To Smith, polar bears do not make the cut. “They’re a distant issue; they’re far away, and we have very little relation to them,” he says. “They signify climate change but they’re useless from an emotional or behavior change perspective.”

Monitoring a photobioreactors in the micro-algae production facility, at a factory in the Geothermal Park in Hellisheidi.
Kristinn Haflidason, CEO of Algaennovation, at a micro-algae production facility in Iceland.
Image: Simone Tramonte / Climate Visuals Countdown

Smith says he’s particularly thrilled to receive so many submissions from amateur photographers who snapped unexpected angles to the crisis with their mobile phones. “What makes me so pleased is over 100 countries are represented, [the] contributors are almost gender neutral, and 15% were under 18 years old, which we had to obtain guardian consent for,” he explains. With a grant from the TED organization, Climate Visuals was able to compensate each photographer $1,000, based on industry standards.

Melon Garden, a woman and boy visiting a greenhouse inspecting the crop.
A melon farm in Indonesia.
Image: Pramod Kanakath / Climate Visuals Countdown

Smith says Climate Visuals aspires to work with big news and photo wire services such as Reuters and AP to diversify their climate change reels, as well as small publications that can’t afford premium photo subscriptions.

Illustrators for climate action

Meanwhile, a group of illustrators, typographers, and lettering artists have contributed to a project called Artists for Climate. Their 96 digital illustrations are free to use or adapt for non-commercial purposes.

Free illustrations
Found treasure
Image: Fine Acts

The illustrations are published under the Creative Commons-Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) license, which allows the artwork to be freely used with proper credit to the artist. Each illustration has been conveniently sized for social media and high-resolution applications, and the native design files are even included so one can modify the the artwork.

Studio Punkt /
“Keep it Cool” by the Bulgarian graphic design collective Studio Punkt
Image: Studio Punkt /
Holly St Clair /
“Shall We Clear the Air” by London-based illustrator Holly St. Clair
Image: Holly St Clair /

In a press statement, Yana Buhrer Tavanier, co-founder of Fine Acts, the organization behind the project, says she hopes the “trove of open-license visual art will serve as an invaluable resource and tool for activists, grassroots organizations, and nonprofits to use in their campaigns about climate-change awareness.”

Support Your Local Farmer by Gandhi Eka
“Support Your Local Farmer” by Indonesian artist Gandhi Eka
Image: Gandhi Eka /
“Simple Solutions” by illustrator and hand-lettering artist Sonia Yim
“Simple Solutions” by illustrator and hand-lettering artist Sonia Yim
Image: Sonia Yim /