Gary Braasch is a world caliber environmental photojournalist who creates remarkable images and documentation about nature, environment, biodiversity and global warming. His images and assignment articles have been published by Time, LIFE, Discover, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American and the United Nations among many others.
He received the Ansel Adams Award from the Sierra Club and the Outstanding Nature Photographer citation from the North American Nature Photography Association. In 2010 he was named as one of the Forty Most Influential Nature Photographers by Outdoor Photography magazine. Gary Braasch is author of Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World, which Al Gore calls “essential reading for every citizen.” He is a founding executive committee member and Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and is a Nikon “Legend Behind the Lens.”
Tell me about climate change.
And, tell me about your book – Earth Under Fire.
In June 1997 I was stuck in a cold tent on the Alaska tundra with fellow nature photographer Gerry Ellis. We had come to photograph caribou and other tundra animals, but for these weeks, anyway, we saw very little. But while we read our books in the tent and talked of life and photography, we also chatted about the major issues in nature and conservation. What were we going to do in coming years: what locations, what species, what issues were going to be the most important to photograph?. And also, who was going to hire, publish and pay us for this?
As it turned out, that otherwise really boring time on the tundra was partly a turning point for both Gerry and me (he had started a stock agency but had his eyes on education and the protection of baby animals in Africa; that work, “Wild Orphans,” became his NGO, Globio). I generated lists of environmental issues and realized that climate change was possibly going to be really important, but no one was photographing it.
Before I left Alaska that year, I had not only found a huge herd of caribou to photograph, but I also talked to some scientists about how Alaska was warming. And I went out by way of Prudhoe Bay, seeing and smelling the industrial oil field. I also met the crew of a Greenpeace ship that was bird-dogging a drilling platform offshore. They were already committed about the connection between fossil fuel and global warming. The science, the wilderness, the source of oil and the issue all began to come together for me. About a year later, an article by Bill McKibben in Atlantic Monthly about how everything we do makes and is affected by greenhouse gases further inspired me. On my copy of that article I scrawled the idea: “World tour of global warming.”
But how to approach such a huge subject? I knew from reading science journals and reports that scientists were seeing changes in many places, sharp turns from the slow change seen in years and years of measurements and data, shifts that seemed to correlate only to rising earth temperatures and added CO2. Because popular articles and books on climate change were based on predictions, which are easily dismissed, I wanted to look at the Earth itself and report on the changes already under way. As a journalist, I wanted to move beyond the raw statistics, the secondhand and political arguments, and talk directly to the scientists who are documenting it. So, since I had shot many stories of scientists in the field (like about the spotted owl) I began emailing or calling a few of the leading researchers to ask to come document their field work. I also would ask where changes were the most visible and what other indicators there were of global warming. I wrote my first project description:
“The goal of World View of Global Warming is to illustrate the physical changes and compelling science on all continents, which show that global warming and other climate shifts have begin. Too often public information and political debate lack a basis in science and are without a vision of how the earth is changing.
Working with private grants and magazine assignments, I will visit those locations where climate science is undertaken and where effects of global warming have been documented. As often as possible my photographs will actually show changes (or comparisons with old photographs).
World View of Global Warming benefits from a dialogue with scientists and observers around the world who have provided hundreds of scientific contacts and papers. In the initial phase ending in 2001, I am focusing on polar regions, shrinking glaciers around the world, coral bleaching, insect and animal range changes, and rising sea level. Images will appear in magazines and books.”
My first act was to pull my research into shape, and make a more formal list of locations to photograph. Thinking (rightly as it turned out) that I could not rely on too many magazine assignments, I applied to Blue Earth Alliance a tax exempt photography support NGO founded by photographers Natalie Fobes and Phil Borges]. By December 1998, my proposal received backing from Blue Earth and initial funding was secured from a family environmental fund with which I had previously had contact.
I have to say that at this point I had little idea of what I was getting into – how many studies there were, how much it would really cost, how rapidly climate science would develop, or what controversy it would raise. Global warming was already an issue and battle lines had been drawn: Al Gore had returned from the Kyoto climate meetings but the US Senate refused to consider the Protocol and the Clinton Administration did not push it. The 2000 election campaign was still in the future and the world’s scientists were just writing drafts of their famous 2001 IPCC report – both events which would change the face of our national reaction to rapid climate change.
Early in 1999 I cranked up my contact with climate scientists I already knew, most from my previous Alaska work. I put out the word to my magazine editor list, seeking assignments and other scientific contacts. I already had work coming up in the Peruvian Amazon, so I added on a week of travel into the Andes to photograph receding glaciers, using contacts I found through The Mountain Institute. I arranged to travel later in the year with some of the scientists I knew in Alaska who were studying change on the tundra. The big break came from a contact I had previously made at Life magazine, Steve Petranek, who had become editor at Discover magazine. He saw my emails about my new project and hired me to accompany a writer on a National Science Foundation geologic research cruise to Antarctic Peninsula ice sheets and glaciers in April 1999. The next year I parlayed this into my own return trip, using research about Southern Giant Petrels( which I had learned about while in Antarctica) to gain an assignment for International Wildlife. While on this second trip, I used every opportunity to learn more about and photograph climate change. I had never been to Antarctic before these trips in 1999 and 2000 – but now not only did I have a complete story about change down there, but was also able to gain more visibility as a nature photographer with scientifically-accurate images of Antarctica. I was getting off to a great start.
Of far greater importance than the process of the project and the individual photos I began to make, was my role as a witness to climate change.
No need to remind of what happened in the 2000 election, of the anti-science Administration that George W. Bush installed, of the horror of 9/11 and the near total focus it created on war and national defense. Global warming was thoroughly off the radar and actively dismissed by the government and many corporations and their PR flacks. Through all of this scientists continued to work, putting out a world review of effects and changes in 2001 and an even stronger and better documented one in 2007. Through all of this I followed as — at first — the only photographer that I knew of on a full time climate project (even now there are only about 10 of us who focus on it a great deal).
My photographs, seen in Discover Magazine, on the NRDC website and in an exhibit they curated along with the AAAS scientists organization, began to be seen. In 2001 and 2002 I established my website. And the requests for images from teachers, magazines, websites, citizens organizations and scientists themselves began to come in. By the time I got a book contract from University of California Press in 2004 and completed my list of must-photograph locations the next year, I had been to 22 nations and all continents.
I was a witness to what otherwise were just numbers or facts in news stories: I have stood in the empty rookeries of displaced Adelie penguins and photographed huge icebergs separated from an ice shelf in Antarctica. I have seen the jagged fronts of receding Greenland glaciers and observed subtle changes on the tundra. I have tracked down Alpine glaciers depicted in 150-year-old images and rephotographed them to show them wasting away. In the woods of eastern North America I have walked among spring wildflowers and watched for migrant songbirds, which are arriving earlier each season than in decades past. Along the coasts I have seen rising tides and heavy storms erode beaches. I have heard the anguish in the voices of native Alaskans as they describe their village being washed away, of Chinese farmers facing famine caused by drought, and of Pacific Islanders driven from their homes by increasingly high tides.
Photographing this subject presents a great challenge. Changes have been unfolding for fifty years or more, with most effects being incremental, or invisible. Pictures are not science; they can, however, provide direct evidence that global warming is happening now, all over the world. They provide contact with eyewitnesses—lifelong observers, Native peoples, and teams of scientists who are seeing rapid change across the expanse of Earth’s living systems. Pictures also show that the effects of global warming are taking place in Earth’s most beautiful and sensitive landscapes, especially at the extremities of our planet—at the poles, high in the mountains, and in the ocean’s rich nearshore environments. Animals and plants on the edge of their ranges, as well as people who live on shorelines or who still subsist from nature, are the first to feel the effects.
The photographs in Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World helped to make real the scientific evidence that entire cultures, ecosystems, and species are being forced into transition, the continued existence of some of them threatened by our use and abuse of fossil fuels and the soil of the earth.
What recommendations do you have for the average citizen to start taking a more active role with respect to these issues? What would you suggest to other photographers to increase the effectiveness of their advocacy efforts?
The people I met on my climate change documentary project really mean something to me. Beyond all the scientists and local guides, at this point those who mean the most are the ones who are living with the change but did not cause it. I am in fact a bit haunted by the Bangladeshis in Mohit’s village, the Inupiats who live with Tony Weyionanna Jr. in Shishmaref Alaska, the kids in Tuvalu and in that coal town in Inner Mongolia. They did not cause the great changes that fossil fuel burning and global warming are bringing, and yet they live right on the edge and are affected far out of proportion to their own energy use.
Yes, it has to be said that everyone (with the possible exception of some jungle tribes still allowed to be in isolation) uses and benefits from fossil fuel and plastics and manufactured goods and land use which contribute to greenhouse gases. Tuvalu, though, uses diesel for its generators, relies on fuel for aircraft and boats, uses a great deal of plastic, etc., but still is the smallest nation in the UN and at the bottom of the UN’s list of climate polluters. Those Bangladeshis on the edge of Bhola Island represent 40 million who earn an average of under $400 a year, compared to $36,000 for an average US citizen. There are about 87 of them on that eroding road, and statistically they equal just one American in CO2 output.
I wish every American and citizen of the other 35 or so nations (out of 191) who create almost all the global warming pollution could feel the presence of the more than five billion people who don’t.
While talking about my books and giving shows around the country, I am asked what should be done. Here is the answer in short form:
1. Understand the problem, its causes and threats.
2. Let leaders know the facts and that you expect them to act.
3. Do something today to reduce greenhouse gas output and energy use.
The hard fact is that despite what many nations, companies, cities and people are starting to do to reduce their global warming emissions, the world is putting more CO2 into the air than ever before. The current amount is 387 parts per million (ppm) — higher than ever in the past 800,000 years.
At the same time, renowned American climatologist Dr. James Hansen of NASA says we already have too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the air: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted … CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 387 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” This number is controversial (many scientists say staying below 450 ppm is acceptable), but there is a general call to act fast — working together as a world of concerned people and leaders taking every action we can to limit greenhouse emissions.
Americans wanting to know more about what the current science says can turn not only to my book, but also to a new report from the federal government, “Global climate change impacts in the United States.” (Available at http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts). The major points, indicating the on-going changes which I document in World View of Global Warming, are:
Human activities have led to large increases in heat-trapping gases over the past century. The global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to this human-induced increase. Global average temperature and sea level have increased, and precipitation patterns have changed.
Human “fingerprints” also have been identified in many other aspects of the climate system, including changes in ocean heat content, precipitation, atmospheric moisture, plant and animal health and location, and Arctic sea ice. In the U.S., the amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours has increased approximately 20 percent on average in the past century. Many types of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and regional droughts, have become more frequent and intense during the past 40 to 50 years. The destructive energy of Atlantic hurricanes has increased… In the eastern Pacific, the strongest hurricanes have become stronger since the 1980s, even while the total number of storms has decreased. Sea level has risen along most of the U.S. coast over the last 50 years, and will rise more in the future. Arctic sea ice is declining rapidly and this is very likely to continue. Global temperatures are projected to continue to rise over this century. Whether the temperature of the planet rises by 2-3 degrees F or more than 11 degrees in this century depends on a number of factors, including the amount of heat-trapping gas emissions humans continue to allow and how sensitive the climate is to those emissions. Lower emissions of heat-trapping gases will delay the appearance of climate change impacts and lessen their magnitude.
Unless the rate of emissions is substantially reduced, impacts are expected to become increasingly severe for more people and places. Not a pretty picture. But more and more — in their gardens, along the seashore, in changes to spring and fall natural events, in deeper droughts and more severe weather records, in increasing asthma and urban heat, in smaller glaciers and summer river flow, in dying forests and larger fires – – Americans are seeing climate change and understanding how it affects them.
On my website I have a list of ”Very Important Things to Do about Global Warming…from the individual to the national. ” These actions are prioritized by those that make the greatest difference and from the individual to the national. For example: Sell the SUV (Cash for Clunkers!!) and choose cleaner, more efficient vehicles. Reduce your driving: one gallon of gas burned in any car creates 20 pounds of CO2. Slow down for much better mileage. In terms of fuel, if you can, avoid biofuels like corn ethanol that can steal food from a hungry world. Look for ways not only to combine driving trips but also to use more transit and sidewalks for your errands and for getting to school. Electric cars will be coming soon, perfect for urban trips, but any car needs more concrete, which is a heavy climate pollutant. Reclaim our cities for walking, biking, and dense transit networks. More than 40 percent of household energy use is for transport.
Use efficient appliances and use them less, replace light bulbs with low-voltage compact fluorescents, check your home insulation and windows for leaks that can send huge clouds of heat and CO2 into the air. Many states are offering rebates and programs for household energy audits and rehabs. Turn down the thermostat a few degrees in winter and up a few in the heat of summer. ”Smart” meters, offered by many utilities now, can do this for you and help you see how well you are doing. Buy renewable energy, like wind and solar, from your power company, and track the use to see how you can improve. There are also programs for installing solar panels and hot water systems on residences and small businesses. Homes and their contents make 57 percent of household energy use — and half that is for heating and cooling. Companies — the one you work for and the ones you buy from — can save lots of money and reduce global warming by taking similar steps toward energy efficiency.
Shop smart: Look for products made from recycled materials, created with renewable energy, and which help you save money and reduce pollution. Right now, WalMart and other companies as well as many product makers, are moving to put energy and climate labels on products so we can all see how what we buy affects our atmosphere and water.Let the corporations who make our cars, fuels, goods and power know you want their products to be as ecological as possible.
Use your vote and influence as a citizen to elect responsive leaders. The US House voted on a heavily compromised energy and climate bill which nevertheless will create huge incentives for renewable, non-greenhouse-pollution energy and employment. Go visit or write your Senators to urge they strengthen the national law. Coal is a source of about half our electricity, but it is also the worst CO2 source and very poisonous to boot. Tell your politicians you want to reduce our electrical use so we do not need coal power in the near future.
Organize the neighborhood and town for energy efficiency. Invite neighbors and schools to cooperate in climate cooling actions: Make pathways for walking and biking; put solar panels on roofs; plant community gardens; combine trips or use electric buses for daily errands and kid transport. For ideas and ways to bring climate knowledge into the schools, see http://www.howweknowclimatechange.org and http://www.climatechangeeducation.org.
In the larger urban areas, suburban sprawl makes for lots of global warming pollution; plan for walkable communities, lots of trees, open spaces, and public transportation in and between cities. Build new homes and buildings for efficiency and solar power. Introduce the LEED building principles into building codes, not just to gain points but to urge the most efficient — even energy generating – buildings from now on. And on the ex-urban front, support sustainable farming and forestry, locally grown foods of all kinds, and non-food crops to make into biofuels.
For concerned photographers, many directions and projects springing from knowledge of climate change can enrich their lives and work and perhaps create a new portfolio. I have encouraged a few energized photographers, such as Benj Drummond and Sara Steele, who wanted to specialize on climate change. Their focus on human societies and groups in “Facing Climate Change” has been very successful. But on an everyday scale, if the issue affects your life or your photo subject matter, just integrate it into your work and make sure your viewers know why you made the photos. Make it personal – it is your subject matter and perhaps your livelihood. Start at home or in places you know well, with local effects and local reactions. Since we must all be on to the changes, the things people are doing to shift energy use and waste are extremely important. Many groups from traditional outdoor clubs to fire departments and military bases are taking up climate change — they need photos and we need to see what they are doing.
Climate change affects everyone and everything.