Intersections of Art and Science

Images of Climate Change That Cannot Be Missed – the New Yorker

Coal + Ice (by Fabrice Florin CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr).
Coal + Ice (by Fabrice Florin CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr).

Just as we risk becoming inured to the crisis, an exhibition, “Coal + Ice,” serves as a stunning call to action.

I can remember, a quarter century ago, when photographers would call me fairly regularly to ask where they should go to take pictures of global warming. (I’d written an early book on what was still often called the greenhouse effect.) In those days, it was hard to say: the danger of climate change remained mostly prospective, something that scientists assured us was coming but which had not, in its most obvious forms, really appeared. I’d suggest an Alaskan village, where the loss of sea ice had led to ruinous erosion, or one of the South Pacific islands, where “king tides” were beginning to cause problems, but in those days it was hard to actually see global warming. The creative photographers at the time who figured out strategies to document the change deserve great respect: James Balog, for instance, whose pictures ended up in the Library of Congress this spring, and who is most noted for his time-lapse images of collapsing glaciers, which required herculean technological perseverance to obtain.

Now, with rapid increases in temperature powering a never-ending stream of fires, floods, droughts, and storms, it’s easy to capture images—perhaps too easy, in that we’re so inundated with inundation and conflagration that, at some point, we seem to shut down. Last year’s record chaos, featuring the hottest temperatures in a hundred millennia, feels barely remembered; the news this spring that carbon dioxide has taken a record leap didn’t make the front pages. Those of us in the eastern U.S. clearly saw and smelled the orange skies from the Canadian wildfire smoke last summer, but the effect didn’t linger; it’s not hanging over this year’s elections (though the Canadian West is on fire again, and the smoke is once more making its way south). So I’m forever on the lookout for ways to help people remember the dimensions of this crisis, which moves at lightning speed in geological terms but just a twitch too slow for the 24/7 news cycle.

I think the single best collection of images of the climate crisis I’ve ever seen is the exhibit that will be up through early August at the Asia Society, on Park Avenue. (If that seems a parochial spot for a global exhibit, it is worth remembering that sixty per cent of the world’s population lives in Asia.) Co-curated by the celebrated photographer Susan Meiselas and the exhibition designer Jeroen de Vries, and led by the Asia Society’s Orville Schell, the longtime China watcher and correspondent for The New Yorker (whose late brother Jonathan wrote “The Fate of the Earth,” which first appeared in the magazine), “Coal + Ice” is an evolving project…

Latest Posts + Popular Topics