When Marina Zurkow, an environmental artist and professor at New York University, embarked on designing a set of climate change-themed emojis, every little detail was intentional. She didn’t hold back one bit.
Released in October, the current Climoji sticker set, available for Apple and Android users, paints a pretty grim picture of what climate change looks like. The set includes emojis of dying, starved animals, pollution, extreme weather, and even drowning people—not exactly a hopeful outlook, but that was kind of the point, said Zurkow.
“We felt like one of the big problems is people don’t call climate change what it is,” Zurkow told Earther. “People don’t connect to the outcomes of a lot of anthropogenic destruction that we all participate in a really everyday way. ”
Some of these outcomes aren’t far off. Climate change is already threatening more than 700 species of mammals and birds, so the dead penguins and starving polar bears emojis make sense. The world also got a taste last year of what flooding will look like under climate change: in Houston, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, and across South Asia. People are dying due to floods today, and climate change will threaten tens of millions more in the next few decades as river flooding risk and sea level rise worsens.
The woke, racially observant eye (like mine) will notice a subtle—but key!—difference among Climoji’s cartoon characters. Four people are included, all of whom are dealing with some sort of flooding scenario. One, however, is sitting on a lifeboat, visibly startled but safe. The other three are either drowning or about to. Guess which one is white? You got it: The lady on the boat, who is most likely to survive.
Zurkow was grateful when I brought this up. No one else had asked her about it yet, and it was no coincidence. “Skin tones were not subconscious,” she said. “It’s not an accident that people who are saved in boats are not brown.”
These emojis, a form of climate art, mirror the realities of today. The majority of people who die due to natural disasters live in predominantly non-white, low-income countries, according to a United Nations report from 2015 that looked at 20 years worth of data. Storms were the most deadly killers, claiming 242,000 lives between 1995 and 2015. South Asia accounted for 80 percent of those deaths.
The set’s frank (and grim) pictures may seem depressing, but they serve a purpose of helping people “practice being awake to the problems around us.” As Zurkow put it, “sometimes solutions can put us back to sleep.”
She and the rest of the team who helped put Climoji together aren’t necessarily trying to solve climate change through these emojis. They’re trying to start a conversation. They want the words “climate change” to become more a part of our everyday language.
They do hope to launch a second emoji set once they secure funding—cartoons with a more hopeful tone. That set would include things like solar panels, windmills, reusable bags, electric cars, and recycling bins. Zurkow doesn’t want users—of which there are currently only about 350—to confuse these for solutions, though.
“I don’t believe that any of these are solutions,” she told Earther. “They’re responses to produce a more resilient society.”
A societal change, a shift in consciousness, is what’s needed to actually solve climate change. But emojis can’t do all that. Can they?
Who knows. They certainly don’t hurt, though, especially as people struggle to understand the role they play in climate change. Only 52 percent of Americans believe humans are driving this global crisis.
They need to get woke—and quick—because climate change ain’t waiting for no one.