Global Warming and Earth Under Fire

It’s a silly exercise, going through a photojournalism book by a widely respected environmental photographer and trying to identify from 100-plus photos that single iconic image that says it all about the new book.

With a hundred-plus world-class photos to choose from, it’s the proverbial needle and haystack challenge.

Earth Under Fire Book Cover
Photograph © 2007 by Gary Braasch
View larger image

Sillier yet, perhaps, to then think that a single paragraph – let alone a single sentence from some 90,000 words of text in the book – by this accomplished reporter could say it all.

Challenge accepted.

In a final chapter and epilogue concluding his “Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World,” veteran photojournalist and reporter Gary Braasch (pronounced to rhyme with “gosh” or “Bosch”) steps away from the mostly reportorial approach of the previous 212 pages and enters the world of opinion journalism. He makes clear his own view:

No policy should be promulgated, no program initiated, no alliance sealed, no purchase made, no machine designed or built, no land use permitted, no product introduced, no law passed, no politician elected unless the action is a step forward to reduction and reversal of the effect of greenhouse gases.

Don’t go out and buy this Ansel Adams Award-winning reporter’s climate change book for just the photos. You’ll miss the informative and fact-filled narrative. But don’t go out and buy it either for the reportage … you might overlook the images that are Braasch’s forté.

Gary Braasch
Gary Braasch

It’s clear from the start that the Portland, Oregon, reporter/photographer’s new book is a labor of love. And of hours interviewing, traveling with, and learning from scores of leading climate scientists and researchers.

Braasch’s travels and photography on this effort started a full decade ago – in 1999 – and carried him to four continents. The low-key and unassuming Braasch complements his own extensive first-hand reporting with essays by some of the leading scientists whose work he reports on, and with an afterword by activist, journalist, and author Bill McKibben, whose decade-earlier “The End of Nature” still stands among the pinnacles of environmental writing.

Braasch does not set out here to provide a reportorial and “balanced” perspective of the climate change science debate; any remaining skeptics opening his pages are decidedly unlikely to find their names or see their views represented. Instead, Braasch delivers what is unquestionably an often personal and moving documentation of what he calls “a decisive, overarching event of the twenty-first century – one with no equal in the previous centuries of human challenge.”

A picture may be worth a proverbial thousand words, but in Braasch’s experienced photographic eyes and hands, they often tell even more:

Alpine Plants
Alpine Plant Survey.
Photograph © 2007 by Gary Braasch
View larger image

“Pictures are not science,” he allows at one point. “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.” He writes that his images “are witness to the fact that entire cultures, ecosystems, and species are being forced into transition, their continued existence threatened by our activities.”

An interesting point about Braasch’s 267-page University of California Press hardback is that it can easily serve several masters at once. For those new to the issue of manmade global warming, it provides a ready one-stop read with images and insights from around the world.

For those steeped in the literature, it provides a convenient and highly readable and authoritative capsule of the full range of effects observed or anticipated. It puts names and faces to far-away places and impacts.

A coffee table book worthy of the finest substantive climate change library, one might say, full of both beauty and heft. Sobering and in some ways alarming, and yet not devoid of hope and optimism …. or at least of hope.

An ardent hiker and back-packer, the Omaha native, Northwestern/Medill graduate, and one-time UPI/Chicago reporter says he was writing frequently on national parks issues in the early 70s when he initially picked up a camera and put it to work.

It was in 1980, photographing the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington, that he fundamentally redirected his career toward photojournalism – not just photographing the beauty of the natural world but also the hard news of nature and of changing natural settings. He is now a Nikon Corporation “Legend Behind the Lens.”

Wind Farm, Ill.
West of Rockville, Ill., May 20, 2004. Photograph © 2007 by Gary Braasch
View larger image

“Before it happened I was just doing beautiful nature pictures,” he told American Photography magazine. With publications such as Time and Smithsonian publishing his Mount St. Helens images (“I was really lucky to get those pictures without being killed,” he says.), “the experience also made me realize that I’d been wasting my time doing only beauty shots.” He has since coupled his love of photography with a keen pursuit of environmental science, and now climate science.

Braasch worked closely with environmental interest groups in initially identifying impact areas to explore. He says he raised most of the financial support for the years-long effort from the Wiancko Family Trust of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, through Blue Earth Alliance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Aveda Environmental Sustainability Program. He also received a book advance in 2002 from U.C. Press, which subsequently participated in having it technically reviewed and assessed by nearly 100 scientists prior to publication.

“When I started writing, I started from my own experience in terms of how I experienced the Antarctic, which was on the ‘Nathaniel B. Palmer’, the National Science Foundation research ice breaker …. That particular mission was to get sediment cores from the Antarctic Ocean to see what the climate record was, going back several thousand years. Just to get a line on what is happening today.”

“Most of the information starts with a peer reviewed article,” Braasch said in an interview this fall at a Stanford University outdoor café.

Asked if he considers his book “journalism,” Braasch quickly replies, “Oh, absolutely. It is advocacy journalism to the point that I’m allowed my voice toward the end of the book to talk about where I think we need to go and where I think we should go, and what seems to be the story that I’ve just told and what it means …. And I actually have an epilogue which is totally my voice, my editorial about where we need to go.

“In the rest of the book, I try very hard to report what is going on ….When I felt that there were significant scientific differences between the scientists or there were significant scientific controversies, or information that was not fully formed and accepted yet, I tried to make that clear and talk about the scientists that were involved. It’s all about scientists though. I’m not reporting what the bloggers are saying or what the corporate-type advertisers are saying.

Shoreline Wind Generation, Netherlands
Shoreline wind generators, Netherlands.
Photograph © 2007 by Gary Braasch
View larger image

“This is all, for the most part, what scientists are saying. Or interpretive journalism, which is what I learned at Medill. I try to point to where the information is going rather than get locked into ‘he said/she said.’”

The book, with a publication date of October 1, 2007, is ISBN #978-0-520-24438-2, listed for $34.95 in hardback cloth and cover. About 90 percent of the images are film photos, which Braasch says he finds both more credible and more archival than digital images. In late November, Borders online and Amazon.com were listing the Braasch book for $23.07 new, with free holiday-season shipping.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.