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Stamps and global warming

Chris Yardley writes about his research showing how postage stamps reflect public discussions. Stamps have reflected the changing climate of talk about global warming in Australia over two decades.

The postage stamp is a ‘time capsule’, a representation of an ideal or a situation at a certain point in time  Regardless of how the representation ages or deteriorates, it is a visual memory and a marker of an idea to be celebrated at a particular time and space. Here I particularly examine the stamps issued by Australia Post that represent some of the arguments of the changing climate.

Scientists have warned about the “greenhouse effect” for years. Now it is no longer a scientific nightmare. It has arrived. (Sydney Morning Herald, mid-1988)

The issues of the changing climate are current today and  have been so for 30 years. One might expect that the message of the changing climate, sustainability and environmental conservation would be a constant theme on postage stamps. It is not. The changing climate is currently being recognised as an international problem not as a localised situation that any one country can solve.

Reviewing my stamps I am struck by the various titles given to the messages through stamps that draw attention to the situation, such as ‘conservation’, ‘pollution’ and ‘protection’ (generally of animal and plant species). I shall concentrate upon the messages that express concern describing, the ‘changing climate’ and ‘environmental protection’. The postal authority has issued these stamps to change public perception and behaviour through highlighting the situation.

Maria Taylor in her book Global Warming and Climate Change: what Australia knew and buried, has studied the subject of ‘framing’ within a science communication context and has used the above Sydney Morning Herald quotation as an introduction to her description of her PhD thesis on this topic. Her interest was in the public knowledge, the ensuing public dialogue and government action with regard to climate change. Her window of research was the late 1980s to 2001. She has shown that the actual science available and published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), since 1988 has been consistent but that the public rhetoric of the Australian Government has varied with the politics of the day. It has been political ideas that have driven, or not driven, government action with regard to the changing climate.

In the late 1980s the Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was calling for action on global warming, as reflected in the AusPost stamp issue shown in Figure 1. The four images and text cover the spectrum of the ongoing concern : ‘conserve our soil’, ‘precious pure air’, ‘water is precious’ and ‘conserve energy’.

The stamp design and format are consistent and form a cohesive whole. They are strong lenses to promote public changes of behaviour prompted by sophisticated images evoking a curiosity in understanding the messages.

 Australia. 1985, Conservation of soil, air, water and energy. Renniks catalogue #’s 887-900.
Australia. 1985, Conservation of soil, air, water and energy.
Renniks catalogue #’s 887-900.

In keeping with Taylor’s conclusions about a long gap, between the 1980s and 2000s, in public concern it would be 19 years before Auspost again reviewed the changing climate situation highlighting the importance of renewable energy.

The communication from two other Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard changed dramatically “from expressing good understanding and a will to take action, to a confused and conflicted debate with clear correlations to the national response” wrote Taylor. Four stamps shown  below  illustrate four possible sources of renewable energy but with less of a ‘call for action’ than the earlier set. The renewable energies : solar, wind, hydro and biomass are named in the foreground but the theme is shown in a very small font. The images are mirrors of the technologies, with an element of lens, but the environmental message is diluted. The emphasis for the action for change has been lost because of the change in political motivation.

Australia. 2004, Renewable energy : solar, wind, hydro and biomass. Renniks catalogue #’s 2333-2337.
Australia. 2004, Renewable energy : solar, wind, hydro and biomass.
Renniks catalogue #’s 2333-2337.

In 2007, after Howard’s 11 year term in office, Kevin Rudd and Labor were elected to power. Rudd declared that the resolution of climate change was the “world’s greatest moral challenge” and one of his first actions was to ratify, on behalf of Australia, the Kyoto Protocol of ten years previously. Australia Post responded to that challenge with the stamp set entitled ‘Living Green’ that was also issued as a prestige stamp booklet with background information text.

During 2007/2008 Australia was in drought control and the first stamp ‘save water’ shown below was particularly pertinent. All the stamps in the issue were for local service with the three other prompts being ‘reduce waste’, ‘travel smart’ and (again) ‘save energy’.

2008 was also important in Australian terms as the Garnaut Climate Change Review was published stressing the urgency and expense of the primary challenge “to end the linkage between economic growth and emissions of greenhouse gases”. The images are strong and simple lenses sending a very clear message.

 Australia. 2008, ‘Living green’ : save water, reduce waste, travel smart and save energy. WNS catalogue #’s AU055-058.08.
Australia. 2008, ‘Living green’ : save water, reduce waste, travel smart and save energy. WNS catalogue #’s AU055-058.08.

The fourth set in the series, below, celebrates ‘Earth Hour’, an Australian initiative in 2007 and now a worldwide event organised by the World Wildlife Fund, (WWF).  It is held on the last Saturday of March annually encouraging households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights for one hour to raise awareness about the need to take action on the changing climate.

Australia Post has chosen three animals to represent the fact that all life on earth is threatened by a change in the climate. Design has been driven by the concept of ‘protection’. The Leadbeaters Possum, shown on the green 55 cent image is an endangered species in its natural habitat in Victoria.  The orangutan whose image is on the international stamp is in danger due to the deforestation of Indonesia and Borneo. The third image carries the main semiotic message in that in the context of the three stamps the “owl represents the wisdom of taking timely action against global warming”. This fourth set is the first from AusPost that embraces the space concept in taking a world view to tell its Australian message.

These Australian stamps confirm Taylor’s basic thesis that changes in political motivation determine priorities in the narrative supporting, or denying, the need for public policy.

Australia. 2009, ‘Earth Hour’. WNS Catalogue #’s AU019-021.09.
Australia. 2009, ‘Earth Hour’.
WNS Catalogue #’s AU019-021.09.


Taylor, M. (2012). Loading the Dice: Perspectives on Climate Change Comunication in Australia, 1987-2001. (PhD), The Australian National University, Canberra.

Taylor, M. (2014). Global warming and climate change : what Australia knew and buried   … thern framed as new reality for the public. Canberra, ANU Press.

Yardley, C B (2015). The representation of science and scientists on postage stamps. Canberra, ANU Press.

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