When a Sky Garden is nothing more than an empty promise

Last week, I visited the Sky Garden on top of a skyscraper in The City of London, on a mission to make up my own mind about the controversy surrounding this once reputed public park in the sky. Fortunately, I was able to book a place for the very next day, not exactly show-up-and-see, but better than the three day waiting times that other visitors have described. Registering online however is akin to booking a flight, not the only analogy to an airport experience that has been leveled by critics of the Sky Garden. I dutifully arrived in good time the next day and took a few photos at street level, pleasantly surprised to discover a green wall at the base of the building. ‘This looks promising’, I thought to myself. ‘Perhaps the Sky Garden has green credentials after all?’ Twenty Fenchurch Street is a 37-storey glass and steel tower just a floating cinder away from the former location of Thomas Farriner’s bakery, site of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Standing directly beneath, it appears to defy gravity, curving where all surrounding buildings have straight lines, top heavy where others retreat into a narrower profile. Starchitect Rafael Viñoly, may have attracted controversy for its so-called ‘death ray’ design but the building’s profile serves a very utilitarian purpose. Larger floor plates on higher floors attract higher rent yields from tenants willing to pay more per square foot for the views and enhanced prestige in the eyes of competitors and visiting clients. In recognition of this fact, it seems likely that Viñoly and developers, Land Securities and Canary Wharf Group, were only ever going to secure planning permission for such a design if they could appease public discontentment by providing them with access to the highest and widest floors of all. And so we are left with what has been referred to as a ‘bullying bulge’ by Oliver Wainwright, architect writing for The Guardian newspaper, or in other circles, as the eponymous ‘Walkie Talkie’ or even ‘Walkie Scorchie’.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

The distinctive curvature of the building is clearly visible

 

As I passed through the dedicated ground-level entrance to the Sky Garden, I was met by a doorman, who passed me to a greeter, who then directed me to a baggage machine and walk-through X-ray manned by two security guards. All very professional, if not airport like. Emerging from the lift on Level 35 into bright light, I found it hard not to be impressed by the cathedral-like vault that opened up before me with 360-degree views across all of London. It felt light and airy, open space above and around, freeing, despite the curving lines of white steel. I walked across the event space, past the Sky Pod bar, and out onto the open-air terrace facing directly south. The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building stood straight ahead, the iconic Tower Bridge to the left, and the River Thames winding directly below. It was only as I returned inside the building that I noticed the gardens for the first time.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Event space at Level 35 at the foot of the gardens

 

Two strips of ‘hillside’ vegetation extend either side of the main attraction, a giant glass box housing the Sky Garden’s brasserie and seafood grill restaurants. It may not be high on every visitors list but it’s clear from the pride of place afforded to it that the developers of 20 Fenchurch Street take a different view. There are perhaps two points on either ‘hillside’ that allow the visitor to leave the stairway and semi-immerse themselves in the greenery. But try as I might, I could not imagine myself lost in a jungle thicket, no matter how briefly. Cycads, palm trees and giant ferns predominate, as sprinklers on poles that could surely be disguised better, deliver a fine spray of mist at periodic intervals. Red Hot Pokers and Bird of Paradise flowers inject some much-needed colour on lower slopes and add a dose of ‘tropicality’ to the overall experience. But as Peter Rees former chief planner for the City of London, who originally approved the building, admitted: “I think calling it a sky garden is perhaps misleading. If people are expecting to visit it as an alternative to Kew, then they will be disappointed. ” At a rough guess, I estimate that one quarter of the total floor space in the Sky Garden is devoted to greenery.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Stairway on the westside of sky garden

 

The most frustrating aspect of the development is that the Sky Garden could deliver so much more for a tiny fraction of the overall £239 million cost of the entire building. Even if you begrudgingly allow for the commercial necessity of two restaurants and a bar (in total there is room for four hundred diners at a time), so much of the remaining empty space still remains paved in tiles rather than covered in soil. Let’s not forget that the Sky Garden occupies three levels with the largest floor plates in the whole building and so it is staggering how little space is devoted to the ‘public’ gardens. A ten-metre wide platform juts out from the topmost restaurant, serving no real function other than to look down upon other visitors two levels below. Nobody is going to bother stopping here for any length of time since the latticework of the building impedes any view of the city. By now I was beginning to agree with Oliver Wainwright’s description: ‘It feels a lot like being in an airport terminal, jacked up in the air’ than the cathedral-like vault of my first impression. I can only imagine that the perspective from inside the seafood bar and grill is even more remote – a glass box within a glass shell. All of this space could have been a continuation of the landscaped gardens, a mountaintop plantation of sorts. The northern end of the Sky Garden similarly has a large empty tiled area that has no amenity of note other than a line of benches alongside a wall of glass. Even the main event space on the bottom level, dotted with dining tables, has plenty of room to accommodate a collection of large potted plants in between. At the very least, it would bring the vegetated slopes that bit closer and give visitors the illusion of being in a tropical garden as they sipped on their lattes.

© Climate Change Cafe 2015

Large open space directly under roof on Level 37

 

Aside from such cosmetic improvements, there are many missed opportunities that could elevate the Sky Garden to something more than just an empty brand name. The space could have an educational value – none of the plants are labeled by name, origin, habitat or medicinal use. Perhaps the gardens could even play a role in conservation by providing a home to endangered plant species. It could serve to promote awareness of environmental issues such as unsustainable oil palm cultivation in Indonesia and Malaysia. How much investment would be needed to install half a dozen or so interactive displays to inform people of sustainable agriculture or the devastating impact of our consumption patterns upon tropical rainforests? However, the uppermost floors of Twenty Fenchurch Street would serve a far more productive purpose if they separated their revenue generating hospitality side from the viewing platform and garden attraction. Ideally, the restaurants and bar would all sit below the gardens, which could then fully occupy the topmost level and largely be open to the elements. This green roof would then create real value for the entire building by absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, creating a habitat for wildlife, and helping to lower urban air temperatures by reducing the heat island effect. In fairness, the Sky Garden doesn’t make any claims to be a green roof, or to have any green credentials at all for that matter, but what a missed opportunity. Visitors would be freer to walk amongst the greenery and take in the cityscape below from sheltered viewing platforms along the sides. The potential role of such a green roof to educate the public would also be far more meaningful, as it would be a working model that demonstrates the importance of green infrastructure in an increasingly urbanized world. This would be a project worthy of earning the name ‘Sky Garden’.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Gardener at work amongst cycads and ferns

 

The existing Sky Garden is first and foremost a space for dining and entertaining, then a viewing platform, and lastly a giant glass atrium housing the equivalent of a modest potted plant collection. Time and time again, I felt as if I was Jonah stuck inside the rib cage of a giant whale. The architecture of the building dominates just as much from the inside as it does at street level. The end result is a confusing experience where the visitor isn’t quite sure why he or she has ascended thirty-five stories in the first place. ‘Ah yes, to see the Sky Garden of course!’ It almost comes as an after thought. The gardens could never be described as a public park as originally promoted in the developer’s planning application. Let’s be honest with ourselves: London doesn’t really need an indoor park on the 35th floor of a building anyway. The real loss is the wasted potential to create an experience for the visiting public that showcases what it means for a building to be sustainable, by incorporating green infrastructure into parts of our cities that are often left redundant. You lure them up with the promise of a spectacular view and then you show them how their city can become a greener, healthier, more sustainable place to live in. Seeing that there is a penchant for attaching humorous names to prominent skyscrapers in London, I would like to propose that we rename the Sky Garden. Any suggestions?

All photos Copyright © 2015 Climate Change Cafe

 

Divestment and The Guardian: The right strategy but the wrong target

© 2014 Colin Cafferty

A climate change campaign calling for divestment in London last year

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…so the poem goes. But a certain Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger, clearly was stirring, not least emotionally, when he sent an email to twenty or so colleagues at The Guardian newspaper at around 10pm that night. Rusbridger had recently caught ‘climatitis’ at an awards ceremony in Stockholm when having lunch with Bill McKibbin, founder of 350.org. And so now he was convening a task force of The Guardian’s best and brightest to throw their full weight behind an ambitious project to shine a light on climate change by ‘reinventing our storytelling capacity’. Or in the immortal words of George Monbiot the following month, ‘We can’t carry on flogging a load of dead horses and flogging them in exactly the same way with exactly the same whip’.

Indeed this news story is in all likelihood the first time any editor of an internationally renowned newspaper has elevated climate change to the very top of the news agenda and Mr. Rusbridger deserves our respect for this much. After twenty years at the helm, Rusbridger is preparing to step down. He may yet succeed where Obama has fallen, that is to create a legacy in what he rightly describes as ‘The Biggest Story in the World’. The behind-the-scenes look afforded by the podcast series of the same name is refreshing, revealing and may yet be the most original piece of storytelling in the entire media campaign. I can’t help but feel like an incredibly fortunate intern who has blagged a seat around the discussion table in their special projects room; a mouse that dares not stir least he cause a stampede for the door.

The true extent of McKibben’s influence on proceedings is not acknowledged other than to adopt the hashtag #KeepItInTheGround as a maxim for focusing climate change efforts on the fossil fuel industry. Although much debate is given to selecting an angle for the Guardian story, in the end it is not a ‘global political solution’ suggested by Monbiot that is chosen but rather divestment. And it is not a conventional reporting route that Rusbridger settles on but a campaign, despite his obvious trepidation. Since campaigning for large institutional investors to divest from fossil fuel holdings has been the whole raison d’etre of 350.org for some time now, it would not be unreasonable to believe that McKibbin must have sprinkled some of his magic sauce onto the smorgasbord they both enjoyed that time back in Stockholm.

As I listen through the podcast series, I become that intern silently nodding at the table in agreement with the editorial choices Rusbridger is taking. The moral imperative for divesting is certainly a compelling force for change, particularly in the early stages of such a campaign when leadership is required. But with time, those hard-nosed investors who continue to invest in fossil fuels will be forced to react to the economic imperative as they consider the very real danger of a carbon bubble exploding in their face. In a sign that financial markets are taking the risk of stranded assets seriously, HSBC Global Research published a report in April 2015 (Stranded assets: What next?) offering economic advice on managing increasing fossil fuel risk and advocating divestment as one approach to reducing risk exposure. Neil Berkett, chairman of the independently run Guardian Media Group, proves the point when he rather unexpectedly announces in podcast Episode 4 that they have decided to divest themselves. ‘It’s been complicated as our principal accountability is to fund The Guardian in perpetuity’ he explains, ‘but as we began to analyze our portfolio we came to the conclusion that you could generate at least equal returns [without fossil fuel investments]’. And so the first, perhaps only, victory in the Guardian campaign is secured in its own back garden. The Guardian has been cleansed. It now has the moral authority to campaign for others to follow in its wake.

Here is where I part ways with the Rusbridger approach (actually it happens one episode earlier). The Editor-in-Chief goes about selecting the targets of his campaign – The Wellcome Trust, a preeminent biomedical research charity just down the road from The Guardian offices in London and across the Atlantic, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. His rationale of ‘targeting the liberals who will do something’ holds promise on the face of it, even if it’s in need of quite a bit more fleshing out. We are told that The Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world with $43.5 billion in their endowment and $1.4 billion invested in forty of the top 200 carbon reserve companies. Another fact, but not disclosed to our ears, is that Gates is also the largest private funder in the field of medical research along with the Wellcome Trust which follows in second place. Perhaps it was discussed in the room and this intern just wasn’t paying attention. But in any case, it’s not being shouted about loud enough now. I find it quite surprising that any Guardian campaign, involving two organizations sharing a fundamental interest in R&D and health, is not relentlessly and unambiguously pursuing an agenda that connects these interests to fossil fuels and climate change. And yet aside from a letter from the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations in the news publication last week (Fossil fuels are the new tobacco when it comes to health risk), there has been very little talk about all this. Perhaps there isn’t much to talk about in the first place.

I’ve decided to take issue with the biggest campaigning prize of the two. I tentatively raise my hand in the special projects room, and then think the better of it. By now, I’m actually sitting on a stool over in the corner. I couldn’t nod any more and I’d given up staring awkwardly at the knots and grain in the sustainably-sourced pine table. Bill Gates has always put his trust in innovation. In fact, it would be harder to think of anyone still alive who symbolizes technological innovation and entrepreneurship more than him. I fire up my laptop and google ‘gates” and ‘energy’, skip past the energy-saving electronic gates in the search results, and arrive at www.gatesnotes.com, the personal blog of the great man. ‘Does he really have time to blog, seriously?’ I think to myself. I’m looking at an article on energy poverty written last year where he provides a platform for Two Videos that Illuminate Energy Poverty by Bjorn Lomborg, previously described as ‘one of The 10 Most-Respected Global Warming Skeptics’. Lomborg believes fossil fuels are the only way to provide electricity to those in sub-Saharan Africa and lift them out of poverty, a view which Gates obviously subscribes to also as he admits, ‘I always find him [Lomborg] worth listening to’. I construct a news headline in my mind for the next day’s Guardian front page; ‘Gates Divests from Fossil Fuels Despite Belief Poverty will Worsen in Sub-Saharan Africa’. Best not to say that out loud.

My curiosity is well and truly piqued by now as I scroll down through the first page search results. TerraPower – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Let’s take a look at the all-seeing, all-knowing Wiki then. ‘One of TerraPower’s primary investors is Bill Gates’, it tells me. A few more clicks and I discover that he’s actually a board member. TerraPower is a nuclear reactor design company based in the US that’s developing a new class of nuclear fast reactors called the traveling wave reactor (TWR). Okay, so Gates is investing in nuclear as a novel form of low carbon ultra-efficient energy source that could be a game changer in the fight against climate change. One way of interpreting this is that he won’t have much reason to invest in fossil fuels if the technology is ever successfully commercialized. But that’s not happening anytime soon. Another voice in my head says that Gates is simply being true to himself, investing in technology, in the zealous belief that it will be the solution to providing the clean energy of the future. So far my search has not offered up any indication that The Gates Foundation has an incentive to divest itself of its billion-dollar fossil fuel portfolio.

Talk in the special projects room at The Guardian has moved on to boring economics stuff led by Larry Elliot, the Economics Editor. ‘It’s hard to see how the Russian government would be affected by a divestment strategy’, he points out. I set myself a new challenge – to employ my extensive googling skills to search for Guardian articles about The Gates Foundation that may have been actually written by some of the people present in the room. I want to know what Rusbridger and his team already know about Gates that they’re not talking about. Zero point two eight seconds and 1,930,000 results later, I’m presented with an article appearing in the papers Environment section that reports on the TerraPower connection back in 2011 (Bill Gates and China in discussions over new nuclear reactor). Feeling ever more confident, I use the search feature on The Guardian website itself, which yields 657,000 results alone. By now, I’m thinking to myself, ‘I should be getting a consultancy fee for this’. Up pops an article by John Vidal, Bill Gates backs climate scientists lobbying for large-scale geoengineering. As a technological proposal, this is as utterly radical as it gets. Gates clearly believes that climate change is a problem that should be solved by technology and The Guardian must already know this.

What does all this tell us? It tells us that Gates is going to advocate for R&D into clean energy, energy storage and the likes over divestment in fossil fuels every time. But why can’t he do both, I hear you say? Invest in technology and divest from fossil fuels? They’re not mutually exclusive after all. Well because of his old pal Warren you see. Tap, tap, tap… ‘He was the most successful investor of the 20th century. Buffett is the chairman, CEO and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, and consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people’ (Warren Buffett – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). Over on The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, I learn more from Marc Gunther about the cosy relationship between the two as he tells us, ‘Buffet sits on the board of the Gates Foundation; Gates is a director of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett’s holding company’ (Climate change: what Warren Buffett could learn from Bill Gates). All perfectly above board. Gates reportedly considers himself ‘very lucky’ to be able to ask the Sage of Omaha, for advice on a regular basis. So if Gates investment strategy is not common knowledge, then should we not consider the investment style of Buffet? After all, this should be transparent to just about every stock investor at trading desks, both real and virtual. What would Warren say to his old pal across the boardroom table…or even the bridge table? By now, I’m free-styling between the Wiki tab and the Guardian tab in my browser, weaving together a story, amazed at my own cleverness. Meanwhile the special projects room has transformed itself into a ‘special therapy room’ as James Randerson declares the ‘need to confess that I find climate change really hard to engage with’. Everyone else is talking psychology at this stage but I’m going way deeper than all that.

Gunther, Editor-at-Large for Guardian Sustainable Business US, goes on to tell us that BNSF Railway, a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most aggressive lobbyists for the coal industry in the US. In fact, Buffet’s stake has recently been performing better than expected (Berkshire Hathaway profits bolstered by rail operator BNSF) making it very unlikely that he’ll be cashing out of high carbon investments in the near term. Indeed Berkshire Hathaway is one of the very few big US companies that has not reported on its greenhouse gas emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project. A dialogue is now playing out in my mind. ‘So Warren, old buddy, what do you make of this newspaper campaign to divest the Foundation’s fossil fuel holdings?’ ‘Well Billy boy’ begins Buffett in a Mid-West accent, ‘I’m surprised to hear you ask me that question. You know I’ve committed 99% of my $70 billion fortune to philanthropic causes, primarily via The Gates Foundation, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna see you piss it away cause of some hippie bullshit over in England!’

Armed with coloured markers and post it notes, the others in the room are getting all creative in their search for a jargon free positive story. Meanwhile, I’ve come across what at first glance appears to be the most compelling article of all. It’s from 2010 so it didn’t appear at the top of the search page – The Guardian launches global development website with Gates Foundation. If Rusbridger had made his final campaign in office into a developing country issue, then he could have appealed directly to the core objectives of The Gates Foundation. For instance, a campaign that galvanizes inward investment into a technology that assists developing countries in an innovative way, and sits outside of the hideous bureaucracy of the UN process. Something that specifically addresses the twin themes of health and R&D that Gates and his foundation already have an established track record on. Even better, he could have aligned with one of the objectives of the global development website – adaptation to climate change. Perhaps he felt such a campaign would conflict with their existing global development partnership. Or perhaps he realized that he had left it too late into his term of office to achieve something tangible and focused on this theme.

The Guardian isn’t afraid of exposing the financial affairs of Gates, just not at the time of launching a campaign that depends on his goodwill. An article by Ian Birrell that appeared in the ‘Comment is Free’ section of their website last year takes no prisoners as it asks, Bill Gates preaches the aid gospel, but is he just a hypocrite?. I’m now shielding my laptop screen just in case any of the other staffers get a glimpse and violently eject me from the room. “Moving earnings through low corporation tax countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Singapore means the company saved itself, according to one estimate, almost £3bn annually in tax”, he reports. This figure surpasses even the $1.4 billion in fossil fuel investments held by his foundation. It seems that when it comes to business, Gates draws a distinction between ethics in business and ethics in global development. Would The Gates Foundation even exist as a philanthropic entity if for instance, Microsoft was pressured to address its tax avoidance? By now I’ve arrived at the conclusion that there may be other more obvious campaigns targeting Gates, which may not serve climate change, but nonetheless have an equally strong moral imperative.

I apologize for not having mentioned Melinda Gates so far. As co-founder of The Gates Foundation, she could yet swing the decision in favour of divestment. But again, there are no indications, to the best of my considerable googling prowess, that she is any more open to divesting of fossil fuels than her husband. Her Twitter account advocates strongly for gender equality and female empowerment within the context of global development and health (you guessed it, yet another worthwhile campaign). In the short term, The Guardian could see if they can leverage her interest in climate change as a health issue for women, one that could be better served by divesting from fossil fuels. I’m really clutching at straws now.

I find myself questioning whether Gates really has anything more to prove in terms of leadership at a global level. His public perception is generally favourable and his legacy in the business and tech community is already assured. On top of all this, he is making a real difference to global development issues in a way that entire nation states have not been able to achieve. His approach is targeted, results-oriented and hugely ambitious. When it comes to public health in developing countries, there is surely no other private organization in history that has made more of an impact. He recently played a huge part in eradicating polio in India and has his sights set on global eradication by 2018. We are talking positive impacts to millions of lives. Is he really going to be compelled to take on another leadership role, this time in the fight against climate change? If he ever decides, the evidence suggests it’s likely to be through investment in technology or global development than by divesting from fossil fuels.

I admire the consistently high standard of reporting by The Guardian on climate change and I fully support the wider campaign to divest of fossil fuel holdings. If their campaign succeeds, I will be the first one to congratulate them. But I strongly believe that The Guardian has chosen the wrong target in The Gates Foundation. An intern searching the newspaper’s own website could have shown that there’s simply no compelling reason for Gates to support their campaign. Perhaps they didn’t do their research because they knew they never needed to, because Rusbridger is taking a gamble. What’s a billion here and there when your personal fortune is valued at $79 billion (as of April 2015)? It’s a relatively modest risk in order to secure your legacy as a global leader in the Biggest Story in the World. More than one man’s legacy depends upon it.

Woodberry Down Fun Day 2013 – rebuilding communities

The Woodberry Down Estate in Manor House on the borders of Hackney and Haringey in North London is undergoing a massive 20 year regeneration, which involves demolishing almost 2,000 homes and replacing with more than 4,600 new properties for social rent, private and shared ownership.

London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) is working in partnership with Manor House Development Trust to deliver the Manor House PACT project, a three-year engagement, training and community-building programme of activities thanks to £1m from The Big Lottery Fund. The aim of the project is to build momentum and increase the resilience and capacity of local communities to take control of their own lives, their homes and their neighbourhood, and enable them to live more sustainably in the face of climate change.

FInd out more here – LSX – Manor House PACT

See how you can get involved – Volunteer with Manor House PACT

The Challenges Facing Community Wind in the UK

Community ownership of renewable energy is still an alien concept to most people in the UK. Media reports are invariably negative whenever the two words ‘community’ and ‘wind’ appear in the same sentence. And yet, there are a small number of individuals who are determined to show that it doesn’t need to be this way. Jack Heslop*, site manager of Baywind Energy Cooperative, is one such individual. Baywind was established by a group of concerned locals in Cumbria, Northwest England back in 1996. I spoke with Mr. Heslop in his car as we sought shelter on the windswept Harlock Hill, one of two sites owned by Baywind. “There are 1,300 people invested in this scheme. Empty field, wind turbines, 15-17 year ago, people thought we were crazy. Wind turbines, what’s all that about? But these people put their money into it because they believed…because they knew climate change was coming. Even then”. The concept has since expanded under the umbrella of Energy4All, a not-for-profit social enterprise created by Baywind in 2002, which now represents seven renewable energy coops throughout the UK from its nearby base in Barrow-on-Furness. Even if you aren’t passionate about saving the planet, it still makes sense to invest in community energy. Baywind’s model has proven that it can make a steady return over the years – around 10% for the last financial year alone. “That’s because we’ve got a good wind farm manager, you see, that keeps the wind turbines going”, he says laughing to himself.

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm

 

Baywind are currently in the process of repowering their site at Harlock Hill replacing the five wind turbines with a similar number of larger, more efficient models. This will quadruple the maximum output to 11.5 MW, enough to power 6,400 households. But they are facing hurdles every step of the way. “This site falls between two authorities. One half is South Lakelands and the other half is Barrow. We were turned down by South Lakeland because of the visual [impact]”. When I met with Mr. Heslop in May 2013, Barrow Council had yet to vote but they have since approved the application. This paves the way for Baywind’s partner, Infinergy, to appeal the planning decision of South Lakeland Council. “If this wind farm goes ahead there’ll be £35,000 going in to the local community to do what they like with it. We’ll have nothing to do with the way it’s given out”. He later adds, “Personally I’d rather see the money go into a fuel poverty fund to help people pay their bills”.

Fuel poverty is indeed a very real issue in these harsh economic times but too often the blame is laid at the door of the wind industry. “I do believe that all energy gets subsidized, doesn’t it?” he questions hesitantly. “Over the years, no one worried about where their electricity came from. They don’t see it. But all of a sudden…I need to have a windfarm next to me or a generating station of any sort next to me. It makes them think”. This attitude towards energy is strikingly similar to many people’s outlook towards food, and in particular, meat. Consumers want to be able to pick up a freshly cut steak in a local supermarket and not worry about where it came from, if the animals were reared in a humane way. They put all of their misplaced trust in the retailer and the supply chain, until the next scandal comes along, that is.

One of the most unexpected impressions that struck me during my visit to Cumbria is just what a hilly landscape it is. Sometimes I found that I simply couldn’t find the wind turbine (or the access road) that I had caught a glimpse of earlier, especially when I really wanted to find it. You’ve heard of the elusive storm chasers in the US? Well, welcome to the unlikely world of the wind chaser. So what about concerns over the visual impact on landscape in Cumbria? “You’ve got to protect the landscape, but come on, what’s natural around here?” he says inquiringly. “It’s all evolved over the years. It’s not natural. It’s been mined [referring to the nearby slate quarry], there used to be a forest on it. Everything changes. This is a working landscape. Telephone towers over there, two of them either side of us”, pointing through the car window.

Recent proposals by the UK government to give local councils greater powers to reject wind developments in their jurisdictions whilst also requiring greater contributions to community benefit funds will not empower a fair representation of local communities. No doubt, local communities need to see more direct benefits from wind, and any other infrastructure developments (road, rail, power stations) for that matter. But some perceive the community fund to be a bribe and it rarely appeases the vocal minority who are fearful (whether justified or not) of local house prices being negatively impacted. Up to 20% of Denmark’s energy needs are currently met by wind, of which 80% is met by 2,100 community-owned wind farms. These are communities that have a real stake and a long-term return through the shared ownership of wind farms in their locality.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “One of the nicest things I do on this wind farm… we’ve had every school in the area come here”, he announces proudly. “We’ve had planners, we’ve had bankers, we’ve had coach-loads from Japan, Italy and Australia. They’ve all come here because it’s a community owned wind farm and I’ve never had one person that didn’t like it”. So what about the future for community-owned energy? “I think it’s always going to be challenging. It’s just that risk money…if you don’t get your planning, you lose your money”, he replied shaking his head. If it’s already taken two or three years since first applying to replace five community-owned turbines that have already stood in a field for 15 years, what hope is there for any new developments?

This article is part of a series exploring wind power in the landscape. Tilting at windmills is an ongoing photo project that has so far travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria in England. Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer based in London who focuses on energy, sustainability and environmental issues.

Useful links –

http://www.baywind.co.uk/

http://www.energy4all.co.uk

http://www.climatechangecafe.com

*All views expressed by Mr. Heslop in this article are his own and do not represent the official stance of Baywind Energy Cooperative or Energy4All in any way.

Cleaner Air, Healthier Schools, Happier Children

Pupils at Tiverton Primary School proudly show their findings on air quality

Pupils at Tiverton Primary School proudly show their findings on air quality

More than 1,100 London schools, from nurseries to secondary schools, are near roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles a day, which could be responsible for up to 30% of all new cases of asthma in children. How can we make the streets safer and more pleasant places for our children? Last Friday (May 17), I had the pleasure of accompanying London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) to Tiverton Primary School in North London as part of their “Bubble Day” outreach project on air quality. Bubble Day encouraged children to travel to school by sustainable means within a 1 km ‘bubble’ from the school, and allowed children to measure their own local air pollution using citizen science techniques. It was very encouraging to see how many students raised their hand to say they had come to school on foot or by public transport. Only two out of a class of thirty said that they arrived by car! On a separate note, it was also heartening to see how the kids in such a multi-ethnic and diverse school got on so well with each other.

Casting my mind back to when I was in primary school, I can remember going on Nature walks to the forest on the edge of my town in the west of Ireland. I have fond memories of collecting frogspawn and leaves, identifying birds and trees. We were reconnecting and learning a new-found respect for Nature but it wasn’t such a big deal when you lived in a small town surrounded by fields on all sides. The sea air that swept in from the Atlantic was sweet and pure; our lungs were fit and healthy. Inner city London is an altogether different world where education on air quality carries far greater significance and where children often don’t have a choice about whether their air is safe to breathe or not.

The staff at LSX were well organized under Ali Lin and delivered a thoughtful and effective programme of events that were equally fun and educational. The day’s activities included learning about how distribution of moths and lichen can indicate good or poor air quality; ‘seeing’ pollution using Ozone strips and sticky tape analysis, monitoring and mapping local travel methods to and from school, and making badges to share with others the importance of clean air in the local area. Travel surveys found that currently only 3% of pupils cycle to school, yet 60% wished they could. Additionally 95% of lichens observed by pupils are only found in polluted areas.

Young citizen scientists collecting data on the streets

Young citizen scientists collecting data on the streets

My own experience of citizen science has been an overwhelmingly positive one. I spent one week in Wytham Woods near Oxford in 2010 with the environmental NGO Earth Watch when I was employed at HSBC. Time was spent collecting data on moths (I didn’t realize there were so many different species) and measuring tree growth in the fragmented woodlands nearby. Not only did I learn a great deal about climate change impacts on native species, but it also brought people together from many different backgrounds and countries and all in a fun environment. Because the programme continued over several years assisted by many dozens of citizen scientists, more data was collected than could ever have been achieved by a team of dedicated researchers.

Air pollution is a hot topic for London. The Mayor of London has faced down several threats of fines from EU regulators due to air pollution along major transport arteries in the city. The Congestion Zone charge has probably had the single biggest effect on driving down air pollution in London. Hybrid buses, that use a combination of an electric battery and diesel engines on certain routes, are also to be commended. However, there needs to be more incentives for people to use sustainable transport. The roll out of a network of electric car charging points has been too slow so far. Green infrastructure needs to be developed further – not just to provide green spaces for health and leisure but also to increase biodiversity and improve air quality. Green walls absorb particulate matter (PM10s) from the air and act as a natural filter that can improve quality of life for asthma sufferers and the like. Urban sustainability is one of the ongoing photo projects I’m working on and I hope to raise awareness of initiatives such as urban farming and green infrastructure through photography. We need to engage school children on such issues and I believe that photography is a powerful way of achieving this. With camera in hand, your sense of sight is sharpened many-fold and you find yourself wanting to share your vision of the world with others.

Green wall outside Edgware Road tube station

Green wall outside Edgware Road tube station

Improving air quality and reducing CO2 emissions go hand in hand. The threat to remove climate change from the curriculum is very real. Under new education guidelines by Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, climate change will be dropped from the National Curriculum for students under 14 (Michael Gove: Don’t scrap climate change education). There is also a chronic shortage of scientists and engineers that are needed to make the UK a world leader in technological innovation for the green sector. No doubt that lack of investment in our education system is one reason for this. Our schools need to form more partnerships with the private sector and in particular with NGOs such as LSX. We need interactive and fun activities both in and out of the classroom.  We owe it to our future generation if not to ourselves.

What can you do?

The Bubble Day activities are part of the LSX Cleaner Air for Manor House Schools project, part of a wider project called PACT, Prepare, Adapt, Connect and Thrive. Over the next three years, this project aims to promote simple and practical lifestyle changes, which prepare the Manor House community for challenges associated with climate change. PACT is also looking for local people interested in volunteering as PACT Champions. This is a great way to learn new skills and to learn about climate change. For volunteer opportunities, please contact Trish Disbrey at Volunteer Centre Hackney on 0207 2414443 or at Trish@vchackney.org

Rural | Urban – An exhibition review on sustainability

Rural Urban exhibition at Somerset House, London in May 2013

Rural Urban exhibition at Somerset House, London in May 2013

Somerset House is currently leading the way in London as a venue for exhibiting photography at the highest level. Bright rooms with quaint fireplaces and views through large windows onto playful water-fountains make for a pleasant viewer experience. The latest installment “Rural | Urban” follows hot on the heels of the Sony World Photography Awards to explore the relationship and tensions between rural and urban environments. A truly pan-world issue in our globalized society that affects just about everyone, it deserves greater attention on the world stage and a sensitive treatment of the challenges we all face.

The very words “rural-urban” force you to rethink the whole debate and I find myself wanting to make a conscious effort to never utter (or type for that matter) the rather backward phrase “urban-rural” again. It also follows a certain logic – the migration of people, resources, and talent – that is happening around the world. The tagline to the exhibition, “In search of balance”, is equally as revealing as the title. I’m not so sure if the exhibition fulfilled this promise or even fully committed to exploring it. Much is talked of sustainability today but not many people are aware of the full meaning of the concept. “In search of balance” is a much easier notion to communicate and identify with. Perhaps too much focus was given to portraying obvious imbalances and tensions although I recognize that much of the debate is skewed in this way. However, I think that by portraying harmony and equilibrium more effectively, it can reinforce all the more those examples that lack such qualities.

The installation of such a large exhibition to be shown to the public for just four days is somewhat baffling. This may be the inaugural exhibition where the sponsors are testing the waters but nonetheless, it deserved to open with a bang and not a whimper. After all, this exhibition has a strong message to impart to the public and so needs to ensure that it reaches as wide an audience as possible. It may be that other larger follow-up exhibitions are planned but I think that the sponsors missed an opportunity to make a real impact from the outset. It didn’t appear to me that budget was a major concern based on the printing, framing and “landscaping” of the exhibition and although Somerset House is a prestigious and well-visited venue, I feel that it would have made sense to hold elsewhere if a longer tenure could have been secured. Logistics aside, perhaps it shows a certain lack of confidence from the sponsors. It is worth noting that Syngenta, a global Swiss agrochemical company, has a somewhat controversial public image to protect due to debate over use of its pesticides and biotechnology research. I have no intention of making this review political as there are others who will no doubt step into the breach and so for now, I will just say dear readers, that I am simply glad photographers have another outlet in which to show their work and achieve recognition.

The work of both the professional commission and open competition winners was outstanding (with the possible exception of Andre Francois, whose work did nothing for me). Holly Lynton is particularly deserving of worthy mention. Her images stood out in similar way to Jan Brykcynski of Poland in that they communicated the uneasy relationship between Man and Nature, the Rural and the Urban, on a more personal level. Somewhat more debatable was the quality and curation of themed images. The conventional approach of organizing pictures around a theme is rather clichéd I feel in this day and age, although I understand the need to achieve cohesion both within and across the exhibition. Even if the ultimate aim is to raise awareness of specific issues, there are surely cleverer ways of doing this. Urban sprawl, migration, infrastructure, greener cities, food production and deforestation were all represented, some more than others. Anna Beeke’s “Mimic”, a water tank trying to blend in with its surroundings and Arjen Schmitz’s “Hong Kong” that perhaps encapsulated the rural-urban divide best of all, were personal highlights for me. On the other hand, certain images such as the Didcot B power station at night were intentionally oversaturated to enhance the rural-urban effect but did no favours for the photographer’s work.

Several glaring omissions were evident if we stick with the theme-oriented approach. Renewable energy infrastructure, most often located in rural environments to provide for urban populations, and the fate of the planet’s oceans and waterways which cover the majority of the earth’s surface, both deserved a place. Likewise, the farming community was under represented and the greener cities theme could have been expanded to address this. In fact, communities in general were notable for their absence. Even the people-centric theme of “Migration” portrayed the solitary individual struggling to eke out an existence without paying homage to the new communities that they have formed and those that they have left behind. I, for one, would like to explore the rural-urban divide along such lines and have already started a project with this aim. Dalston vs. Dalston takes a look at two very different communities that share the same name – one in the tranquil surroundings of Cumbria next to the scenic Lake District in England, the other in my gritty inner city neighbourhood of East London.

Migration

Migration

Of particular commendation was the inclusion of living installations in some of the rooms. The open refrigerator with capsicum plant was perhaps a little too over-the-top but the grass-lined wall and indoor garden with surrounding bench did add a touch of rural to the urban environment. I feel that this approach could have been explored further to not only create a sense of tranquility and harmony but also to portray the unease and tension between the rural and the urban. This should not take away from the photography but I believe it could enhance the overall visitor experience and allow them to interpret the images on another level. Rural | Urban is worth comparing with another recent exhibition in London exploring a similar theme in order to give some perspective. The Environmental Photographer of the Year (EPOTY) award at the Royal Geographical Society in April was rather disappointing. Aside from an obvious lack of budget that did no justice to the photographers’ work, there was also a notable lack of imagination in the overall curation of the exhibition. Images were invariably too small and too uniform in size with no ebb and flow of energy thus removing any impact and leaving the viewer with a very flat experience. Perspex frames dehumanized the images and left me feeling rather cold not just towards the images but also towards the issues they were trying to portray. Another niggle for me was the obvious overlap – must we see yet another image from Bangladesh, another over-packed train? And some selections were frankly baffling and totally misplaced in this exhibition (e.g. Beach pleasure by Andrzej Bochenski). As a first attempt, Rural | Urban has done rather well but should strive for far more.

Adding a touch of rural to the urban

Adding a touch of rural to the urban

Perhaps the biggest photography prize in the field of sustainability and the environment is the Prix Pictet, which showed at the Saatchi Gallery in London last Autumn (read my review here). This is where the big guns come out to claim the richest prizes and perhaps Syngenta are looking to challenge this title at some point. Even if not, theirs is a welcome addition to this under-represented and globally significant topic in the annual awards calendar. It is also heartening to see that photography has a greater outlet for environmental documentary and artistic expression today. However, it’s important that such work gets out of the galleries and onto the streets to make it more accessible to the general public. Outdoor shows such as the Hard Rain exhibition at St Martins in the Field next to Trafalgar Square in Central London come to mind. I would also like to see more events organized around such exhibitions and not just the predictable public speaking by established photographers. Again, the aim should be to make photography more accessible and to raise awareness of the issues being portrayed to a much wider cross-section of society. In the case of Somerset House, they could use their extensive frontage onto the Thames visible from the Southbank and a large square that already draws crowds in the winter with its ice rink, to lure people into the galleries. Photography has an opportunity to lead the way in how it engages with its audiences over other more established art forms such as painting or sculpture.

Will society continue to become increasingly more urbanized after mid-century? Or perhaps the next evolution in the rural-urban debate will be the breakdown of borders on the way to becoming “rurban”? Whatever the result, I certainly hope photography will be there to inform, enlighten and inspire all the way.

View images from the exhibition here

Can Obama deliver on climate change in his second term in office?

 

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

President Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday gave some well-needed hope to the environmental movement by signaling that he is prepared to take action on climate change during his second term in office. It’s fair to say that many commentators and the wider public were caught on the hop. Obama’s silence on the issue during re-election campaigning has been noteworthy. And yet he devoted an entire paragraph (13 lines) to climate change in yesterday’s speech compared to just a single line in his first term inaugural speech 4 years ago. Back then he pledged, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” This sentence appears poetic, almost biblical as if he was prophesizing a future that could only be achieved by divine intervention. It also seems rather distant and disconnected from reality.

This time round, he spells out the consequences of inaction. On the squandered employment opportunities by failing to invest in renewable technology, he exhorts that, “We must claim its promise”. Indeed such inaction on the part of the US is allowing other nations such as Germany, South Korea and China to steal a march. Despite some pragmatism, his speech still carries religious undertones as he talks about “how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”. In this regard, it appears that he is attempting to reach out to Republicans by reframing the debate on climate change as a duty to God and country to protect “our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks”. However, if someone refuses to believe that man-made climate change is even real, then this new narrative is something of a dead-end. Instead, we could be listening to Obama’s own personal convictions. Obama knows only too well that just four years remain to make history and to be remembered not just for the colour of his skin but also for the legacy he leaves behind. As a family man with two young daughters, there is little doubt that they are a driving force and inspiration that reinforces his personal conviction to tackle climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”. Fine words indeed but is he actually able to deliver on them?


The President of the United States may be billed as the most powerful man in the world but if Obama really does possess superpowers, then the Republican Party is surely his kryptonite.  The GOP controls the House of Representatives and has vowed to frustrate any attempts to pass legislation that harms the fossil fuel industry and other backers of the party. Even some within his own party have yet to be convinced of the need for action on climate change. A Cap-and-Trade bill proposed during his first term was defeated even at a time when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.  Perhaps this was for the better, as European attempts to control carbon emissions using the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) have failed miserably so far. The current price of carbon is trading at a measly five euros with carbon allowances flooding the markets. Hardly a meaningful incentive for power plants and heavy industry to curb their carbon emissions.


It would appear that Obama is ready to take a new tack on climate change this time round. The American political system has become so polarized in recent years that attempts at seeking consensus are futile. So rather than trying to take such a radical measure as creating a carbon market in the US, the President is likely to take a more measured approach that allows him to make full use of his executive powers that do not require congressional approval. Rather than aiming high and making little or no progress, he will most likely set his sights lower at a more modest but achievable set of targets. No doubt he and his advisors know only too well the limits of their power after four years in office. This approach obviously has a very real downside in that tinkering at the edges will not achieve the change necessary to reduce carbon emissions in time. Options already on the table are the regulation of carbon as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act and a tightening of energy efficiency measures such as the automotive fuel-efficiency standards, which are due to increase to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025. One way of exploiting his executive decree and thereby circumventing Congress would be to veto the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to deliver oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the heartlands of America. Pressure exerted by Canadian conservatives and US states with oil refineries is likely to be intense. Tar sands have a much greater carbon footprint than even the dirtiest of fossil fuels (coal) and extraction methods scar huge swathes of virgin landscape, polluting rivers in the process. Energy security will most likely be cited as justification to support the project in a similar vein to fracking, which has also exploded onto the scene in recent years.


Obama will need to pick his battles carefully and so tighter regulation of fracking may be an alternative battleground to make a stand on climate change. The Washington Post proposes that EPA powers could be extended to regulate methane leaks from the burgeoning fracking industry. Fracking is a process whereby a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into fissures in shale rock to force natural gas up to the surface. Fracking technology has been one of the saving graces for the American economy in recent years, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the barren plains of North Dakota where lights from the local fracking industry are now visible from space. Methane is 24 times more polluting than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change. Any methane that escapes is therefore likely to undo much of the benefit associated with burning natural gas that is “cleaner” than coal.  Equally any attempt to impose additional costs on “frackers” that could make the industry less competitive are likely to result in stalemate. The EPA already has the authority to regulate CO2 thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision. However, this only applies to future power plants and not the existing ones, which are responsible for a whopping 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions. Any action to clamp down on power utilities and the fossil fuel industry will no doubt be vigorously contested in the courts. As an outsider, I’m always amazed by the apparent injustice of the American legal system in the hands of obscenely well-paid lawyers who can defeat legislation on some obscure technicality.


One concern is about how many concessions the EPA will be forced to make as it seeks to implement the Clean Air Act. The New York Times reported last week that the Navajo Generating station in Arizona secured a further 5-year extension from the EPA meaning that it now doesn’t have to implement controls on nitrogen oxides until 2023. I was fortunate to visit the US Southwest last March and as I approached the spectacular Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, I was greeted by the sight of three towering chimney stacks belching smoke high into the blue skies above pristine red-rock country. The 2,200MW plant provides electricity for customers in California, Nevada and Arizona and provides valuable employment for many Native Americans belonging to the Navajo Nation. But the owners will need to invest in the region of $1 billion to install new catalytic reduction technology to render nitrogen oxides harmless. Are they any more likely to be able to afford the costly upgrade in 10 years time than they are today? And will they be able to afford to meet new and separate requirements on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Here is a clear example of the true cost associated with fossil fuels, which are largely externalized. Nitrogen oxides not only have health impacts but also contribute to much of the haze that hangs over the Grand Canyon, obscuring breath-taking views. Similarly carbon emissions are directly responsible for the far greater (and as yet unknown) costs of adapting to future climate change and responding to the impacts of extreme weather today.

For now we can only cling to the US President’s every word in hope and attempt to read deeper meaning into those solitary 13 lines of his inaugural speech. We will need to wait until the State of the Union address in February to get a better indication of what real and meaningful action Obama plans to take and whether he is serious about creating a legacy for himself on this issue. In 2009, the President pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. Many experts think this is far too little, too late from the world’s second largest polluter. Right now, there’s probably more than a few concerned environmentalists who would settle for second prize.

Chasing Ice proves that seeing really is believing

SA Agulhas passes through Tower Bridge in London on Dec 6, 2012 bound for an Antarctica expedition. “Seeing is Believing” is a a charity for avoidable blindness.

Chasing Ice – the very title appears to be a contradiction in terms. Ice is frozen water, frozen implies not moving, stuck in time and place. So how can you chase something that doesn’t move? This is the basic premise that veteran photographer James Balog and 28-year old film director, Jeff Orlowski set out to answer in the critically acclaimed documentary of the year, which previewed last night at the Curzon Soho in London. In the process, they have provided the most dramatic visual evidence of climate change in action captured to date.

Chasing Ice triumphs over audiences by virtue of its truly stunning cinematography. An iceberg equivalent in size to all of Lower Manhattan (except twice as tall as its tallest buildings) breaks away from Greenland’s Ilulissat glacier in the greatest such event ever captured on camera. The calving ice twists and turns in the water, rolling over to expose its underbelly, reminiscent of a whale breaching in the open ocean. Putting on a ballet performance to the sound of classical music, although there was no soundtrack, only the deep rumble of unimaginable natural forces, which deserved to have the volume cranked up to full. Edward Burlynsky’s images of industrial landscapes elicit the same uneasy response – a hypnotic attraction to the beauty in a scene of destruction and devastation. I found this unique footage to be eerily reminiscent of the 2011 tsunami in Japan in terms of the sheer scale of destruction, the similar displacement of huge volumes of seawater, and the unique footage captured. Although the impact on human populations is far more subtle, sea level rise due to climate change is a slow burner that could potentially displace more than 100 million people by the end of the century.

Undoubtedly, the greatest single success is Balog’s time-lapse photography, without which the movie would be meaningless. Time-lapse is a technique that speeds up a sequence of imperceptibly slow movements to give the impression of a continuous moving picture edited from footage captured over days, months and even years. Balog’s photo project, known as the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), comprises cameras set up in 27 remote sites from Greenland to Alaska that allow us to bear witness to the ice advancing ever so slightly in the depths of winter only to retreat in spectacular fashion. It’s hard to fathom how a technique that has been around for over a century has only now been applied to the movement of ice. Even other nature documentaries such as “The Private Life of Plants”, a series narrated by David Attenborough, used time-lapse as far back as 1995 when the connection between climate change and melting ice was already widely recognized. Nevertheless all credit to Balog for getting a team together to finally bring the project to life.

Ice is by its very nature cold, inhospitable and unforgiving. It was always going to be a massive challenge to illicit an emotional reaction from the public towards what are essentially massive blocks of ice sliding into the water. There were no cuddly polar bears or dancing penguins on show, neither were there Inuit fishing communities nor Sami reindeer herders. As a consequence, this heaped pressure on Balog’s personal story to deliver with emotional impact whilst at the same time not detracting from the main narrative of the melting ice. A task that is equally as tricky as hiking across a crevasse-strewn ice field and one in which I’m not convinced this movie succeeded in living up to. The determination of Balog to overcome technical glitches, his repeated knee operations and spurning of medical advice, the glimpses of family life, somehow didn’t come together to instill one coherent emotional response in the viewer. It could be argued that since this is a movie about chasing ice and climate change, we should not be distracted by a personal story. But in my opinion, both should blend seamlessly with each element reinforcing the other in order for the movie to succeed as a whole.

Chasing Ice is the 28 year old director’s first foray into a full-length feature and I can’t help but wonder why the task wasn’t left to a more seasoned veteran. Whilst the cinematography is breathtaking, the editing was found rather wanting. The clever use of scale to help the audience comprehend the epic nature of the ice-scapes shown on the screen and the before/after shots were certainly commendable. However, scientific facts and figures felt imposed on the viewer and there was a lack of inventiveness in sharing climate change data through the more cutting edge infographics and animation that audiences have come to expect today. Similarly, footage of Balog’s lecture tour didn’t manage to create the buzz of excitement that should have left cinema audiences wanting to replicate for themselves once they left the theatre. Climate change is not a light topic and despite the stunning imagery and my deep admiration for Balog, it was hard not to feel somewhat dejected about the future of the ice and our Planet as a whole.

It is important to draw a distinction between what this movie is trying to achieve and its role in the broader debate on the need for action on climate change. To my mind, the greatest success of this movie is to clearly show climate change in action. Seeing is believing after all. Climate change is often described as an abstract issue that people find difficult to identify with. The main pollutant (CO2) is invisible, the timescales involved are difficult to appreciate in our fast-paced world, and competing factors make the direct link between cause and effect difficult to prove. Chasing Ice has come as close as it is possible to overcoming such obstacles. Balog has provided us with the proverbial smoking gun on climate change that hundreds of the world’s greatest scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have sought long and hard to find. Rigorous peer-reviewed scientific data is an absolute necessity but translating that message into one that can be understood by Joe Bloggs on the street requires visual proof that we can all relate to easily.  Many people will identify with James Balog’s steely determination (myself amongst them) to pursue and expose the truth about the rate of change to the great icescapes of the world. But as far as I’m concerned, Chasing Ice is not about to inspire the wider public to change their behaviour and actions to follow a more environmentally sustainable path – even though this is what we need. Behavioural change is notoriously difficult and I cannot think of a single other documentary movie that has had a global far-reaching impact on a social or environmental issue of the same scale as climate change. So my advice is not to expect or demand such a thing from this movie if you don’t want to be left disappointed.

Chasing Ice will no doubt be used by NGOs such as Greenpeace in future campaigns against oil exploration in the High Arctic. Balog and his Earth Vision Trust (EVT), which aims to provide the visual evidence that inspires a billion people to change their view of our impact on the natural environment, should deservedly achieve a higher profile. Crucially, EVT hopes to screen Chasing Ice to one million high school and college students – those who will make future decisions on, and will live with the consequences of climate change. One of the greatest challenges for the movie will be to move out of the art-house cinemas and into the mainstream theatres. The launch of a documentary on climate change is certainly timely with the Arctic summer ice shrinking to its lowest extent ever in 2012 and the threat of oil exploration in the Arctic greater than ever. American audiences are also likely to be more sympathetic to the storyline in light of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the extreme drought afflicting many states last summer. However, I would question the wisdom of a release date (currently showing in many US theatres and about to show in the UK) in the build up to the holiday season, when competition is fierce from Christmas features and Hollywood blockbusters such as Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Although perhaps this movie can reach a wider audience in the New Year on the basis that it succeeds in the smaller theatres now.

I believe that it will be Balog’s wider legacy that will have greatest impact in the longer term and that the Chasing Ice documentary is just one part of this. The best-case scenario to result from the movie is that it raises climate change back up the political agenda in the US. It should also be remembered that man-made climate change is still disputed by a surprisingly large proportion of the American populace. Civilian society, campaigners, and sympathetic lobbyists can use its visual evidence to shame politicians into taking action on climate change, such as by strengthening environmental legislation. A political solution is not the only approach nor is it necessarily the most effective, but perhaps it is the most realistic outcome that can be achieved by this documentary. Scientists have been criticized in the past for not communicating their story in a convincing fashion to the general public. Vested interests such as Big Oil have succeeded in spinning the argument and running rings around conventional scientific opinion in the minds of the public. We need more communicators of Balog’s ilk to sway public opinion towards believing in a cause and taking real action on climate change. Success is measured in terms of who tells not just the best story but also the most believable one. Photography is a powerful weapon in the hands of a skillful and visionary individual in search of the truth. James Balog is one such man.

Useful links –

http://chasingice.co.uk

http://www.jamesbalog.com

http://extremeicesurvey.org