Heroes behind the lens

Images from a Warming Planet: One Man’s Mission to Document Climate Change Around the World
Ashley Cooper
2016, Global Warming Images Publishing
415 pages, plates

ONE OF the world’s most successful multilateral treaties seeking to tackle the damaging effects of human society on the environment is arguably one of the least well known: the Montreal Protocol.

Agreed in 1987 as the enforcement mechanism of the preceding 1985 Vienna Convention, the protocol took effect in 1989 by establishing a plan of action to phase out harmful chemicals, released by industry and utilities such as refrigerators, that damage the ozone layer.

An historic landmark, the Montreal Protocol was, however, quickly eclipsed as multilateral attention responded to growing global alarm over deforestation, and the iconic Rio Earth Summit in 1994 established sustainable development as a mantra of global governance.

Nonetheless, the Montreal Protocol was a true pioneer. It was the first international treaty to address a global environmental regulatory challenge by embracing the so-called “precautionary principle” in policymaking, and the framework of ideas governing multilateral regimes that it established – collective but differing responsibilities, multilateral funding, cooperation across developmental lines – has since shaped global action on climate change.

A key role in ensuring the protocol’s success was played by Chile which, because of its location in the southern latitudes where thinning of the ozone layer was most severe, rapidly recognised an urgent need to act. As a result, Chile was one of the first countries to ratify the Montreal Protocol in 1990 and became its champion: by the end of 2001, 180 countries had followed suit.

Chile’s resolve was informed by local public opinion: a groundswell of national concern that had grown in the early 1980s when scientists identified a large “ozone hole” over Antarctica that extended to Chile. Inevitably, however, there was far less interest in this theme beyond Santiago.

It would be the impact of environmental change elsewhere in Latin America – namely deforestation in the Amazon – that would capture the world’s attention and galvanise social movements everywhere into global action which, setbacks aside, has since cemented issues such as climate change in our consciousness.

And there is a good reason why this happened: photography.

A key difficulty facing Chile – but also the scientists working steadfastly to identify the scale of the threat posed by ozone depletion – is that the ozone is invisible. It is simply impossible to photograph it.

Indeed, the ozone depletion hypothesis was itself the subject of ferocious debates within the scientific community in the preceding 1970s in which the phenomenon was routinely dismissed as “science fiction”. It was only the visualisation of what was happening over the Antarctica in 1985 – in this case through time-lapse animation using NASA satellite data – that shocked negotiators into action, explaining why it took just 18 months after the signing of the Vienna Convention in that year for negotiators to agree the Montreal Protocol.

The burning Amazon, by contrast, was a photographic turkey shoot. You simply could not miss it.

The lesson is obvious: images matter and have played a crucial role in the development of global environmental consciousness. In short, photographers are the unsung heroes in the battle to save our planet.

Ashley Cooper acknowledges this role in his introduction to Images from a Warming Planet and has devoted a considerable part of his life to capturing the different dimensions of climate change on film. For 13 years he has travelled the world – visiting every continent – to document the impacts of climate change and how we respond to them.

Cooper writes: “By holding up a camera to document the change that I see around me, I hope I have produced a record that will firstly convince people that climate change is real, and secondly that we are running out of time to do anything about it. If the images in this book motivate people to action, then it will all have been worth it. We need the science to inform us of the changes going on all around us, but my journey has been more about the changes that we can all see happening, if we choose to look.”

The message Cooper conveys is simple: seeing is believing – and his striking, sometimes haunting images evoke that note of urgency which was felt by the Chileans as they tried to convince the world to act all those years ago.

A woman stands with a bottle of water next to a wall decorated with colourful murals in La Paz, Bolivia, where glacial retreat in the Andes is leading to a desperate shortage of water. The thirst of La Paz is conjured up in a shot of the sprawling metropolis – the world’s highest capital and potentially its first to be abandoned because of a lack of water. The poisoned, drying lakes below the peak of Chacaltaya, whose glacier supplying La Paz disappeared in 2009, glisten purple, discoloured by mine effluent. Adolfo Mendoza poses mournfully where tourists once skied on snow, now confined to a few meagre patches. Shocking images of the barren, arid Laguna Miluni and its dam – a reservoir also fed by glacial meltwater from the Andean peak of Huayna Potosi – show how low the water level has sunk.

Elsewhere, Cooper captures the ugly scars left by deforestation in the tropical mountain forest near Coiroca in Bolivia and the threat posed by climate change to the fauna of the South Atlantic, such as the Black Browed Albatross that nests in the Falkland Islands off Argentina and is globally threatened by long-line fishing boats.

The photographer provides a truly global picture of climate change – shifting from his native Cumbria in northern England to the Pacific Island of Tuvalu, threatened by sea level rise; to the aboriginal people in Queensland, Australia, whose marginal land is highly susceptible to environmental change; to the Berber Arabs in the Anti Atlas mountains of Morocco severely impacted by drought; to the vast Canadian tar sands where the photographer was hassled by police doing the bidding of the oil industry; to the tiny island of Shishmaref between Alaska and Siberia, whose Inuit residents have been forced to leave because of rising sea levels.

These are troubling images, and Cooper works hard to ensure the reader comes away with a sense of the shared threat posed by climate change – transposing the devastating impact of storms and flooding in Cumbria with similar events in Malawi; placing images of devastating forest fires in the Australian state of Victoria alongside similar images from Yosemite National Park. in California and Kootenay National Park in Canada.

Throughout, it is clear that the photographer is seeking to draw parallels between the experiences of people in far off lands with other citizens of the world, not least those in the UK. The objective is to ensure that we join the dots and understand that their fate is our fate in order to overcome our alienation from nature that bears a heavy responsibility for the climate change phenomenon itself.

As the prominent environmentalist Jonathon Porritt reminds us in his foreword to the book: “This pervasive ‘alienation effect’ is one of the most important reasons why we find it so hard to make sense of the daily ‘laying waste’ of the natural world around us … It’s that alienation effect, moreover, which explains why citizens of the rich, urbanised world haven’t (as yet!) risen up in a paroxysm of rage to demand political responses that are truly commensurate with what the science of climate change now tells us.”

Images from a Warming Planet is available here.