I have always been interested in wildlife and the natural environment as well as a keen photographer. About 14 years ago I started to read more about climate change in scientific journals. At the time I was looking for a bit more focus for my photographic work. Decision made, I would organise my first climate change photo shoot.
In 2004 I spent a month in Alaska looking mainly at glacial retreat, permafrost melt, and forest fires. The last part of the trip was to spend a week on Shishmaref, a tiny island in the Chukchi Sea, between Alaska and Siberia. The small island is home to a community of around 600 Inuits, whose houses were being washed into the sea. Sea ice used to form around their island home around late September, but with the Arctic being the most rapidly warming area of the planet, even in 2004, the sea ice wasn’t forming till Christmas time. This meant any early winter storms knocked great chunks off their island, when in the past it would have been protected and locked solid by sea ice.
I was to witness on Shishmaref something that I have seen many time since, that is, those least responsible for climate change are most impacted by it. The whole experience completely blew me away. The evidence that the Arctic was warming rapidly was so strong, coupled with talking to Inuit elders about the changes they had witnessed in their lifetime, left me in no doubt that this was serious issue.
My next photo shoot took me to Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific coral island country (the smallest country in the world) that was being swamped by sea level rise. More people climb Everest every year than visit Tuvalu. I timed my trip to this little known archipelago for the highest spring tides of the year. What I saw was completely shocking. With a flat calm sea, the tides rose so high, that they forced water up through the porous coral, flooding the centre of the island and leaving it in places three feet under water. The inhabitants, mainly Polynesian fishermen were utterly defenceless. Shocked by what I had seen and the clear evidence that sea levels were on the rise, the plan soon formulated in my head that I should make it my life’s work to document the impacts of climate change and the rise of renewable energy on every continent.
I started on a journey that I had to finish. There followed photo shoots to cover drought and bush fires in Australia, coal fired power stations in China, glacial retreat in Greenland, floods in Malawi, glacial retreat in Bolivia, drought and the world’s largest solar power station in California, renewable energy in Iceland, floating houses to combat floods and rising seas in Holland, declining penguin populations in Antarctica, declining snow pack in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the list goes on and on. I wanted to cover three main topics. What is causing climate change, the impacts this is having and what we can do about it.
On any journey like this there are inevitably high and lows, I certainly witnessed some heart-breaking environmental disasters. I documented the tar sands in Canada’s Northern Alberta, the most destructive environmental project on the planet. The rate of deforestation is second only to the Amazon rainforest, and the resulting synthetic oil has up to five times the carbon footprint of crude oil. Taking to the air the scale of the devastation is breathtaking. As far as the eye can see, the forest has been destroyed and in its place a toxic wasteland of oily sludge is the legacy of greed that has driven this insanity.
Thirteen years on I feel like I’ve been through the mangle. I’ve come close to being avalanched in the Himalayas, broken through a snow bridge over a crevasse on the Greenland ice sheet, narrowly avoiding plummeting to the bottom and also being fleeced by my guide in China.
From my worldwide travels, it is clear that climate change has accelerated entirely due to our own choices and actions and we are sleep walking towards disaster. The impacts on people, wildlife and the environment I have witnessed over the last thirteen years have at times been horrifying. We know what we need to do: I have seen the future with my own eyes; it is a clean renewable alternative. We need keep fossil fuels in the ground, start using energy more wisely and truly valuing what it can provide for humanity. Only then may we stand a chance of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change.
It has been an amazing journey, and from this I have amassed the world’s single largest collection of climate change/renewable energy images which have just been published in an art photographic book entitled “Images From a Warming Planet”. Jonathon Porritt wrote the foreword for the book and called it “An extraordinary collection of images and a powerful call to action”.
Hear more of Ashley’s 13 year mission
Ashley Cooper will be joining WWF at our home, the Living Planet Centre in Woking, on Wednesday 22nd March to share more of his incredible stories and images. Book your place on Ashley’s talk to hear more about his amazing journey around our planet.
This talk is part of Earth Hour; WWF’s wordwide campaign encouraging everyone to take action and protect our beautiful planet from climate change, sign up to be part of Earth Hour.