Move aside, smiley faces, clapping hands and dancing ladies. Emoji are finally ready to tackle serious issues.

Devastating wildfires, for instance.

Smog-filled cities.

And emaciated polar bears.

Since the fall, when a team of New York-based artists created a set of 27 icons illustrating some of the greatest threats posed by climate change, more than 6,000 people have downloaded Climoji. Leading environmental groups have applauded and shared the colorful, perversely engaging images. “Climate change is permeating every aspect of our lives, and these designs reflect that,” said Lou Leonard, senior vice president of climate change and energy with the World Wildlife Fund.

The Climoji project, as it is called, is funded by New York University’s Green Grants and led by Marina Zurkow, a professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and recent program graduate Viniyata Pany. Their intent is not to trivialize climate change but to provoke discussion, Zurkow said.

“We are hoping that the Climoji can act as the equivalent of a flashing sign, a humorous conversation-starter or an alert signal,” she explained via email. “The icons, because they are compact, are companions to the larger conversation, not in lieu of one.”

Courtesy of climoji.org

The project may be the first of its kind to think about visual ways to help people talk about the problems in a day-to-day, shorthand format, according to Nick Obradovich, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab who also works on climate change-related communication. “I do really think that some of the complex and sad emotions that people have about climate change, you could write out in essay form — or you could have a crying dead penguin.”

Fans like Seattle-based author Joe Follansbee, 58, said the stickers can be used to “lubricate” conversations. Take a cow farting methane, for example.

“You don’t want to joke about something as serious as this, but lighten up a little, and let’s talk about this,” Follansbee said.

Still, the emoji probably fit some situations better than others. “It’s incredibly contingent on context whether it would be appropriate,” Obradovich said.

He is intrigued by the possibility of the stickers influencing public opinion but said studies will have to track their usage and effectiveness. Morgan Folger, a global warming solutions advocate at Environment America, would measure impact a different way. To really help make a difference, she said, the icons need to move beyond people working in the climate sphere

She uses Climoji when she texts friends about her work. “It’s similar to finding the perfect GIF to send to somebody,” said Folger, 23, who lives in D.C. “It just helps to contextualize what I’m talking about really easily.”

Zurkow’s goal is for as many as 10,000 downloads. She would also like to persuade Facebook to include Climoji in its internal icon library. She and her team at NYU hope to submit a proposal to the Unicode Consortium, a group of Internet and computer companies that sets global standards for icons, she said.

The team is already working to give its fans more possibilities for spreading the climate-change word. It plans to launch a second collection of stickers once funding is set, this time sans gloom and doom.

Think conservation and green energy.

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