Photographer Ashley Cooper has spent more than a decade documenting the impacts of climate change. Here, he shares some of his most memorable images, and tells me his thoughts about the problems – and solutions.
Tell us what you’ve learned about the planet on your travels
I have photographed the impacts of climate change on all seven continents, a project that I started 11 years ago. In that time I have put together the world’s largest collection of climate change imagery. In my travels I have marvelled at some of the most awe-inspiring and dramatic landscapes on the planet. It has taught me how interconnected the planet’s natural systems and processes are.
Humans evolved as just one insignificant species, but have grown to dominate the planet. Our actions are destroying the very life systems we need to support us. We have polluted rivers and oceans, torn up forests, drained wetlands and exploited many species. All of this has had a negative impact on other wildlife. Climate change though is in a different league. It has the capacity to completely unbalance the climate and weather systems that make life on the planet sustainable.
What inspired you to focus on climate change?
I first heard of climate change about 15 years ago. I read more and more and became more interested. I was looking for a bit more focus in my work and I decided on my first climate change photo shoot in 2004 to Alaska. What I saw convinced me that this was something I needed to turn into my life’s work. My shoot looked at glacial retreat, forest fires and permafrost melt.
But for me the most moving part was the week I spent on Shishmaref – a tiny island between Alaska and Siberia that is home to 600 Inuits. As subsistence hunter-gatherers they have a tiny carbon footprint and are least responsible for climate change, but most severely impacted by it. The animals they relied upon for food were migrating further north to find cooler temperatures, making it harder for them to hunt. The sea ice used to form around Shishmaref in late September, protecting it from autumn and winter storms. Today the sea ice doesn’t form till maybe Christmas. Any storms before the sea ice forms are destroying the Inuits’ houses.
Where else have you seen the effects of climate change?
Some of the most obvious impacts of climate change are on the world’s glaciers. I have documented glacial retreat in the Alps, Himalayas, Canada, South America, Greenland, Svalbard and Antarctica. All this excess water reaching the world’s oceans is – in part – causing sea level rise. I visited Tuvalu in the Pacific – a low-lying nation – during the highest tides of the year. Parts of the main island were three feet under water. Tuvalu – along with the Maldives – will be among the first places to disappear as a result of climate change.
In Australia I saw the impacts of the drought and forest fires. And in some areas of China, huge swathes of countryside have been abandoned as deserts have taken over what was once reasonably productive land – they have taken to cloud seeding in an attempt to create rain. Closer to home, the increasing impact of severe weather events has led to an increase in flooding in the UK, which I have documented for 10 years.
Where are the biggest challenges?
The most depressing photo shoot I have ever undertaken was to document the tar sands in northern Alberta, Canada. Tar sands are the most destructive and environmentally damaging projects on the planet. They cause mass deforestation, pollution of the river systems and the resulting synthetic oil has a carbon footprint that’s greater than that of normal crude oil.
What do you think the solutions are?
We need to move rapidly to a low-carbon economy. Only then will we stand a chance of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change. We need to value energy and use much less of it. Moving to local generation from renewables will save the huge wastes of energy involved in national grid systems. We need to eat much less meat, especially beef which has a huge carbon footprint, and source our food locally to cut down on food miles.
Most important of all, we need to persuade the world’s governments to stop paying billions in subsidies to the fossil fuel industries, and instead focus those subsidies on renewable energy solutions.
My recent shoot for WWF-India looked at how small-scale solar power is providing power for the first time to people who had no access to electricity. Projects like this really show us the way forward – and what can be achieved.
What are you doing to help with climate change? What do you think of Kate’s blog? Leave us a comment.