Documenting Our Changing Landscape

Published: January 7, 2013

Environmental photographer James Balog has seen the effects of climate change unfold before his eyes.

Award-winning environmental photographer James Balog set out to document Earth’s changing ecosystem in what he called the Extreme Ice Survey, an adventure that was captured in the highly acclaimed documentary Chasing Ice, and in the book Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers.

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Watching a piece of ice the size of lower Manhattan break off of an iceberg and float away is simultaneously amazing and discomforting. When we first set out to document the changing landscape of our planet, I thought it would be two or three years before we really saw anything worthwhile. What we ended up witnessing almost immediately was both shocking and stunning: a remarkable change in the natural environment unfolding before our very eyes.

The force of history has made it difficult for most people to accept the reality of climate change. We’ve been burning oil and coal for more than a hundred years. It’s not only what we’ve grown accustomed to, but also what our entire techno-industrial system is calibrated to do.

There are also industrial forces that are built to service the oil- and gas-dependent society we’ve established. It’s not just British Petroleum and Exxon Mobile – it’s the financial industries that are vested in keeping those industries profitable, and the political system that’s concentrated on perpetuating business as usual.

It’s incredible, given the information about the clear and present danger that we see, and the depth of knowledge that surrounds this issue, that the financial system, the energy generation and use industries, and the political system are not responding to the reality of climate change. There’s a real problem in the psyche of the people in our democracy right now.

That’s why I set out to document the effects of climate change through photography. Studies and reports that generate numbers and graphs are often difficult to comprehend, and many people simply don’t care about them. But through photography, which lets us witness things through the most dominant of our five senses, we’ve been able to bring the subject alive in a way that graphs and numbers never could.

Even as someone who already understood that climate change was happening, seeing it unfold before my very eyes was a powerful reminder of how serious the situation is, and a strong motivator for change. (It was after that first trip to Iceland that I bought a hybrid car and put solar panels on the roof of my home.) I sincerely hope that my work documenting the changing landscape of the natural world will have a similar effect on others.

There’s unmistakable evidence of what’s happening in our time: We can no longer pretend that climate change is a myth. If we don’t rise to the occasion right now, future generations are going to be shocked that we were such dimwitted dinosaurs. We need to get our heads around this, and do everything in our power to change our current trajectory.

Photo courtesy of James Balog.

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