Truth on Ice

What will our children will be telling their children about America and climate change?

By Tim Connor

Twelve years ago, much of the thinking world was properly horrified when Mullah Mohammed Omar, the then-leader of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, issued a decree to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Bamiyan is 140 miles northwest of Kabul, along the Silk Road. There, in massive alcoves carved into a sandstone cliff, a pair of standing Buddhas were formed in the 6th century at a time when Bamiyan was a thriving Buddhist religious and cultural outpost. The larger of the two statues was nearly 175 feet tall. Before being leveled to the dust, the ornate figures attracted tourists from all over the globe and were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

There were, to be sure, other ways (mass executions, the flogging of women) that the ruling Afghan mullahs shocked the senses of the rest of the world. But the steadfast callousness with which they used artillery and dynamite to completely destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan is a heart-wrenching reminder of the depravity that humans and governments of humans are capable.

James Balog at work in "Chasing Ice."
James Balog at work in “Chasing Ice.”

I began thinking of the Taliban and the Buddhas of Bamiyan a couple days after seeing “Chasing Ice” a documentary about the most recent work of nature photographer James Balog. There is majestic artistry in Balog’s work. His love of glaciers and sea ice as pure art forms is reflected in his hauntingly beautiful photographs.

But that’s not really what “Chasing Ice” is about. Rather, it’s about Balog’s ambitious use of time-lapse photography to try to open our eyes and minds to what climate scientists have been telling us for thirty years—that global warming induced by human consumption of fossil fuels is rapidly unraveling the Earth as we know it.

The resistance to the scientists’ message, particularly in the United States, is neither casual nor innocent. It is the result of an appallingly cynical disinformation campaign fueled by immensely profitable oil companies. This campaign has so effectively captured our politics and our political conversations that the subject didn’t even come up—not once—in the three Presidential debates of 2012. When it did surface at the Republican National Convention in August, it was as a punchline that Mitt Romney used to mock President Obama for giving even a small bit of lip service to the growing threat of sea level rise as a result of melting ice sheets.

Curse Mullah Omar all you want for blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan and harboring Bin Laden. But when it comes to the compelling threat that man-caused global warming poses to life as we know it on our planet, America, thus far, has somehow managed to out-Taliban the Taliban.

If that seems like hyperbole then please consider James Hansen’s story alongside James Balog’s.

Hansen is the son of a Midwest tenant farmer who rose to prominence as a NASA scientist with the publication of a 1981 article in the journal Science. In the article, Hansen and his co-authors warned that rising, man-caused carbon dioxide emissions would cause changes in Earth’s atmosphere potentially leading to “the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia as part of a shifting of climatic zones, erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage.”

The fossil fuel industries responded to Hansen’s work the way tobacco companies responded to the epidemiological studies showing a link between smoking and lung cancer. They attacked both the messenger and the message, and have tried, ever since, to manipulate the science to suppress, obscure and refute the mounting evidence of causation. Their champions in Congress include Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the former chairman and still ranking Republican member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who insists that man-caused global warming is “a hoax” perpetrated by Hansen and his fellow scientists.

Climate scientist James Hansen
Climate scientist James Hansen

For a while, Hansen was discouraged by all the distractions caused by the political push-back on his work and he retreated to his laboratory. Years passed. He became a grandfather and that touched his conscience. As he puts it, he didn’t want his grandchildren to say about him that he “understood what was happening, but he didn’t make it clear.’”

So Hansen reversed course. He began speaking out against federal energy policy under George W. Bush for continuing to emphasize the exploitation of the fossil fuels that cause CO2 emissions. After Hansen gave two public speeches, the Bush White House came down on him in 2005, barring him from making public statements and speeches without prior clearance from top NASA officials. Hansen had invoked the NASA mission statement to justify his speeches.

The first words of the mission statement are: “To  understand and protect the home planet.” At least that’s what the NASA mission statement used to say. In response to Hansen’s criticism of Bush energy policy, NASA deleted the phrase in 2006.

Just pause for a second or two to think about that.

With the stroke of a bureaucratic delete key, a federal scientific agency was coldly acknowledging that when it comes to its priorities, political fealty to oil companies was more important than the protection of the planet. The Taliban’s ritualized executions in the Kabul soccer stadium were more viscerally sickening, and their harboring of Al Qaeda terrorists led to the 9/11 tragedies in New York and Washington, D.C. But the mullahs of the Taliban did not have the power to unleash a global tragedy of the sort that is being prepared for our grandchildren because of runaway carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon dioxide is invisible, and most of us who vote live nowhere near receding glaciers. This separation and lag between the ominous forces that are beginning to unravel the natural world may yet be our undoing as a species. To take the actions we’ll need to take to stave off a planetary disaster requires not just that we wake up, but that we bolt out of bed.

A small but telling part of “Chasing Ice” records James Balog’s deteriorating knees. Setting up and maintaining the network of cameras situated in remote areas of Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, etc., involves long hikes across nearly impassable terrain. Balog has endured several knee surgeries and there are scenes in the film where he is walking across ice fields on crutches. Near the end of the film he explains why, and gives the same answer that Hansen gives for his speaking out: he wants to be able to tell his children and grandchildren that he did what he could, knowing what he knows.

Paradoxically, especially for journalists, this is no longer the story of a debate among scientists.  As Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz calmly explained to Bill Moyers recently, the science is now overwhelming that global warming is occurring, that it is instigated by man-caused emissions of carbon dioxide, and that—on our present course of inaction—its effects as we get deeper into the 21st century will be catastrophic. The hardest but most important part to grasp is encompassed in this third fact, which is that there are powerfully enhancing feedback loops in our natural systems that escalate our peril. For example, man-caused carbon dioxide emissions have triggered the warming that is already escalating the release of vast amounts of methane presently locked up in Arctic permafrost. In terms of its heat-trapping capacity, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The problem that journalists continue to have is that we habitually don’t weigh the science. If there are 100 scientists in a room and 95 say climate change is real, and five say otherwise, we are trained and conditioned to offer you quotes from both sides of the “debate.” And, as Leiserowitz tells Moyers, this plays perfectly into the hands of fossil fuel propagandists who—like the tobacco companies before them—have learned they can undermine any momentum toward regulation just by creating the impression that there is meaningful scientific uncertainty when there really isn’t.

On this front, it’s worth noting that Richard Muller—one of the few prominent, industry-funded scientists who provided cover for the oil companies—changed his mind in the past year. Muller, the head of UC Berkeley’s Earth Surface Temperature project, wrote a guest column for the New York Times in July entitled: “Conversion of a Climate Change Skeptic.”

Here’s the first paragraph of his column:

“CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Carbon dioxide is invisible, and most of us who vote live nowhere near receding glaciers. This separation and lag between the ominous forces that are beginning to unravel the natural world may yet be our undoing as a species. To take the actions we’ll need to take to stave off a planetary disaster requires not just that we wake up, but that we bolt out of bed.

co2chartBlalog’s “Chasing Ice” is one horribly beautiful wake up call, a gifted artist’s response to the science.

“Most of the time art and science stare at each other across a gulf of mutual apprehension,” he told an audience in 2009. With the “Extreme Ice Project” that is recorded in “Chasing Ice,” he and his crew were dedicated to bringing science and art together.

On the day I went to see “Chasing Ice” with my former reporting partner, Larry Shook, I was having trouble getting warm. So I watched much of the film with my wool cap on my head. I guess that’s ironic.

Another irony is just how gorgeous the film is as a gifted nature photographer captures the jewel-like colors and myriad shapes of ice forms. Ice is just frozen water. But through Balog’s lenses and time-lapses the glaciers retreat across landscapes and exhale their mass. You feel for them like you would feel about a beached whale or a dying elder. As Balog explains, the ice is the canary in our planetary coal mine.

As my hands began to warm, I began to think about Balog’s film in relation to Gordon Parks and Billie Holiday.

I thought of Parks for his iconic photo journalism in an era of rapid social change and how it awakened me and other aspiring journalists to the power of photojournalism. Balog’s film takes photojournalism to a whole new level, not just with the technology, and jaw-dropping artistry, but the purity and grit of Balog’s purposefulness.

I thought of Billie Holiday because of “Strange Fruit”—the three-minute song she recorded in 1939. “Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, and is a poetic slap upside the head about then widespread lynching of African-Americans in the South. As poetry and music it’s art that grabs you by the lapels and requires that you locate your conscience.

“Chasing Ice” does the same. It brings before our eyes the still “inconvenient truth” that, for the sake of children and their children, our generation has a moral responsibility to act, swiftly, on what we know.

Tim Connor’s commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.

•To make a donation to Balog’s Extreme Ice Project, go here.
••Front page slider image courtesy of Mila Zinkoval & Wikimedia images
•••”Figure 1″ carbon dioxide chart is from the website Skeptical Science.

5 responses on “Truth on Ice

  1. Benjamin Shook

    Very succinct and wonderful piece of writing here, Tim. You say “ice is just frozen water…” another way to look at what’s melting in Balog’s footage is as a decaying museum: those pieces of ice are many millennia old, and hold the literal time in which humans have evolved. It may be for that compendium of time, that we find it so beautiful, like our ancestors are trapped in there. I just got back from Antarctica… here’s some poetry about ice:

  2. Cat

    As a child living in Alaska, I well remember watching the glaciers break in the spring. There is NOTHING like it. The colors dance as the ice breaks into pieces larger than a small home, the sound indescribable.. It’s Mother Nature at her finest and I’ve paid close attention for years to climate change. Most often, those who reject climate change or the rapidity of it have not seen what I saw. Alaska is still beautiful and it’s with a heavy heart that I watch the changes. Yet, it is just ONE example of climate change and yes, America is, and should be, the first to take responsibility. I remember NASA deleting that prolific statement and understood why at the time.

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