Published April 13, 2018
The impact of climate change is accelerating at an alarming rate, but there is still time to save the planet.
That was the disturbing, but ultimately hopeful message given by James Balog, the acclaimed environmental photographer and climate-change expert, to a large audience attending the Distinguished Speakers Series lecture Thursday night Alumni Arena.
“I don’t think it’s too late — there are many encouraging things happening with alternative energy,” said Balog, when asked if humankind had passed the tipping point and should concentrate instead on adapting to a future of higher temperatures and rising ocean levels. “I don’t think we can just throw in the towel and adapt. That’s a passive activity. That’s basically saying ‘I give up — I’m going to consign my kids to a worse present than what I’m living in.’”
Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey whose time-lapse photography of receding glaciers around the world was the subject of the award-winning 2012 documentary “Chasing Ice,” has been documenting climate change for well over a quarter century. His latest project is the film “The Human Element,” which debuted last week; it is about the increasingly cataclysmic wildfires proliferating in the American West.
Jason Briner, associate professor in the Department of Geology and moderator of the event, called Balog “one of the most important change-makers of the current decade.”
Balog’s eerily beautiful photos of melting icepacks and burning forests, as well as his non-confrontational advocacy of measures to slow climate change, have made him a prominent speaker on the lecture circuit. So have his ripping yarns of adventure, like the one he told Thursday about his helicopter losing an engine over the Greenland icecap and just barely making it back to base.
Along the way, Balog said, he has been able to change minds. He told of what happened after a talk he gave in Salt Lake City.
“This rangy cowboyish-looking guy in a denim jacket and a John Deere cap, about 75 years old, came up to me and said, ‘Young fella, I want to shake your hand,’” Balog recalled. “He said, ‘You know, I really thought this was a bunch of liberal hokum, but I understand it now because of the evidence you showed me.’ About 20 minutes later, that man’s daughter came up to me and said, ‘That was my father — he’s probably laid more miles of gas and oil pipeline than anyone in the western United States.’ I later learned he was awake the entire night, thinking about what he’d done and how he could help going forward.”
Balog said that in his work, “I’m trying to reach out beyond the old polarized places and express the fact that we all are connected.” He called climate change a “universal issue” that “should never have fallen into partisan debate between left and right, Republican and Democrat.”
He cited the significant majority of Americans who believe climate change is real and that human activity is having a substantial impact on rising temperatures.
“There are certain factions of the country that will never change because the climate-change problem is attached to other ideological structures and belief systems that people adhere to,” he said. “My goal is to inspire the people who are open to understanding, to educate the people who are not sure and need more information to help to bring them along.”
Balog urged the audience to support political measures calling for alternative energy, and to “use your voice.”
“Not just your speech, but your voice in terms of how you live, how you handle your world — what you drive, what you eat, how you move, how you reshape the world around you,” he said. “Why does it matter if you take a shorter hot shower and save the energy that was otherwise running into the shower drain? Well, it doesn’t really matter — it’s not going to change the arc of civilization.
“But you know what it does? It at least gives you the chance to do your own part through the world around you. And you can look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did what I could.’
“We got here in the climate-change pickle one tailpipe at a time, one smokestack at a time,” he said. “And we have to get out of it one tailpipe at a time, one smokestack at a time.”
Balog summarized what he called the “ethical, moral, emotional and philosophical problem” facing all of us in our stewardship of the planet.
“That is the question of how much do we love ourselves,” he said. “How much do we love the world around us, how much do we love our community and how much do we love the world that we’re leaving for the people of the future.”