| Interview With
environmentalist James Balog has been doing photography for 30
years, leading the way in understanding and interpreting the natural environment.
He founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), the most comprehensive
study of glaciers ever conducted, the results of which were published
in the June 2007 and June 2010 editions of the National
Geographic. His documentation is now presented in a riveting, feature-length
documentary, "Chasing Ice" which is an unbiased visual accounting
of the reality of global warming.
Author James Balog &
Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski
On the Evidence of Global Warming
The Road to Hollywood
James Balog with icebergs at Ilulissat Isfjord,
UNESCO World Heritage site, Disko Bay Greenland. Courtesy
Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski founded Exposure,
a film production company dedicated to producing socially relevant films.
He initially worked with Mr. Balog on the EIS expedition,
which eventually evolved into this most devastatingly beautiful chronicle
of a planet headed for multiple environmental disasters.
Balog and Orlowski recently sat down with a group
of select journalists to discuss this topic and the following has been
edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
What motivated you make this spectacular film?
Balog: I've been a great fan of Arctic and Alpine
environments my whole adult life. I always thought they were incredibly
wonderful, beautiful places, but then I became aware that the climate
change story was manifested in the ice and a series of assignments in
2005 and 2006 brought me into those places and at the
end of those assignments, I realized there was something here that required
putting cameras out there to try to see what happens in the course of
a short period of time and on a regular basis, instead of just going
back once a year. So that's what motivated me.
The camera technology you needed was not available.
What happened when you approached the various manufacturers?
Balog: They were really intrigued by this and I thought
that the knowledge of how this thing could be engineered would really
be straightforward. I was truly incredibly naïve about that and
very quickly learned that the techies at these camera companies said
probably it will work, but we don't really know. So, eventually it became
a matter of just doing the experiment and finding out if it worked.
It was nerve racking. If this had been a proper corporate science experiment,
where a NASA-style, big science-funded project had been sending
these cameras up to Mars, you'd spend five years doing R &
D, but I felt the pressure of time. I knew the glaciers were receding
and I wanted to get eyes on them quickly. Also, didn't have the financial
capacity to be doing experiments for a year or two. I needed to get
the cameras out there, make it happen, and hope for the best.
Orlowski: To add to that, I think it's somewhat understated
in the film the degree to which James literally designed and
invented a new camera system that did not exist. He is not a technician,
he is not an electronics guy, he hates that stuff, yet in spite of all
of that, he did invent something new. Nothing existed that could have
handled this task.
How did the two of you initially hook up and how
did the project unfold?
Orlowski: We met through a mutual friend. I was familiar
with James' work and was a big fan. When I learned that he was
doing this trip to Iceland,
my friend helped get me in the door. I volunteered to shoot video and
that was my opportunity to work with him and get close to the project.
Then he invited me to go to Greenland and Alaska and it kept rolling
from there. But, we weren't making a film at first. I had no intention
of making of a film at the beginning. James had been working
for two years doing photography on the ice and then he had the idea
of doing time lapses of the glaciers and knew that it would be a big
undertaking and thought he should film it and document it - even if
the video was just for promotional purposes.
Solheim Glacier - 2006. Courtesy
Solheim Glacier - 2009 "Time lapses were showing
very significant changes." (Orlowski) Courtesy photo.
Orlowski: The first year-and-a half I was just there
to shoot videos and help with the cameras wherever I could and at that
point, we had a couple hundred hours of footage and the time lapses
were showing some very significant changes. It was then that I suggested
that we make a movie.
"Chasing Ice" Director Jeff Orlowski films
in Survey Canyon, Greenland, in the summer of 2009. Courtesy
Chasing Ice Director Jeffery Orlowski shooting in
Summer of 2007. Courtesy photo.
The shots are amazing and obviously dangerous.
What was your personal experience as that doesn't show on camera?
Orlowski: There's something about the harsh weather
that James experienced, I had to experience as well, so for me,
it doesn't matter whether my story is part of the film in terms of those
difficulties. We both went through all of those landscapes and those
This is a great chronicle of what we've done to
the planet. Can this be turned into some kind of action?
Balog: The easiest part of this work is going out in
the field and it occupied a lot of our time and energy the first few
years, but now we're in the education and outreach phase and telling
the story. We will soon have an iPad Ap and we'll become expanded
for educational purposes by the springtime. I've presented to President
Obama's Energy and Climate Change staff on Capitol Hill and
Jeff gave a screening and handed out DVDs to every senator
and congressman's office and through various staff members, we have
had a number of opportunities to put DVDs on President Obama's
desk. Hopefully this will help them understand the evidence and the
immediacy and reality of climate change.
Orlowski: We didn't come into this as activists or environmentalists.
We came to this as image-makers and storytellers and we saw the reality
and the significance of this issue and felt a responsibility to do something
about it. So we do screenings and people ask us what they can do. We
don't have all those answers, but we're partnering with people and trying
to get involved with political activism. The message I like to share
is that nobody told James to do this. Nobody told him to go out
there and install time-lapse cameras and spend five years risking his
life to tell the story.
What do you hope the film accomplishes?
Orlowski: Where we see the film having an influence
is by shifting perception. We don't have a problem with economics or
policy. We know we have the tools and technology to solve this issue.
We want to do something about it so if people can use the film as a
tool to help motivate others to care and prioritize this as a real issue,
then we will see some difference.
Was there a time that you were frightened during
this dangerous shoot?
Balog: It was more of a sort of a grinding, never-ending
fear and it would often be at its worst the last couple of days before
I was leaving home. It was in the packing phase that I would get really
deeply anxious that this might be the last time - that I would not come
back and see my daughters and wife again and that was a really hard
thing to travel with - to close the back packs, close the duffle bags,
put them in the car, and get on an airplane.
So with that fear, what drove you?
Balog: It was my duty. It was my responsibility. It
was my privilege as a creative artist and my burden as a human being
- to be aware, to recognize that I was seeing this thing happen and
I could not turn away from it. We've done a combination of art and science
and the integration of those two modalities is a powerful way to illuminate
and bring alive some of these scientific concerns.
James Balog at Columbia Glacier, Alaska, seen with
two time-lapse cameras, late August 2009. Courtesy photo.
Cameras are readily available to just about anyone,
but what makes a National Geographic photographer such as yourself?
Balog: You have to have passion and you have to have
obsession and you have to have the ability to work incredibly hard.
You also have to have the desire to look under the surface of reality
and extend your vision further. It's all of those elements and in fact,
a lot of people who work professionally may have all of those first
characteristics, but don't necessarily have the drive to look under
the surface of obvious appearances and inherited wisdom.
What did you learn creatively from James?
Orlowski: I learned that it's easy to make a beautiful
picture, but the difficult thing is to make a beautiful picture that
tells an important story and James figured it out. He came at
images almost backwards, coming up with the concept first. The idea
was there first and driven by the ideas and the greater theme, we then
figured out a way to represent that photographically. So, it's not just
coming up with an idea for a picture and trying to execute a specific
James Balog hangs off cliff by Columbia Glacier,
Alaska to install time-lapse camera. Courtesy photo.
The moment where you discovered the first round
of cameras were not working was crushing. How did you get your second
wind to keep moving forward after that terrible disappointment?
Balog: The crushing thing about that moment was that
a week later I was going on a big, expensive expedition to Greenland
and I realized when I'm there at the camera in Alaska,
I don't really know if those 12 cameras we're deploying in Greenland
are going to work. I don't know if all the money we're spending on having
five or six people out in the field will be money well spent. I'm idiot.
I haven't tested these cameras enough and that's what the hard thing
was, so it was a number of weeks of anxiety until we got out in the
field in Greenland and started to discover, where the problem
was coming from. It was a while before this sense of anxiety and uncertainty
started to dissipate, but we knew we still had a lot of uncertainty
and it was another year or so before everything settled down and we
knew that everything was working fine.
How did you raise the money for this project?
Balog: There were no private donors in the beginning.
I went to Nikon for sponsorship and they generously gave us 25
camera bodies and 45 lenses. Pelican, the manufacturers
of those cases, gave us a whole truckload of cases. Mann Photo
gave us all the tripod heads. National Geographic provided the
bulk of the seed money that got us out the door and some of my academic
collaborators had grants that were already in the pipeline from NASA
in the National Science Foundation to do work in Greenland
and Alaska so with all of those pieces put together, we had barely
enough support to get out the door. I collected no salary the first
year. Everybody got paid except me. So, it was pretty lean but eventually
we started to get foundation support and a lot of private donors came
on. I also spent a lot of personal cash the first couple of years to
support this. My parents and brothers helped out. It was crazy. This
was not a good business plan, but it was a way to get the thing done.
How much financial support did you actually get
from National Geographic?
Balog: Over three years, National Geographic
was in it for well into the six figures, but this project went well
into the seven figures so as substantial as their support was, and as
ambitious as it was, and as grateful as I am for it, it still was only
a piece of the bigger pie. In the current media age of print media,
that kind of money doesn't exist anywhere, but they were willing to
do it, but the costs were so ridiculous, that it was even beyond their
The "Chasing Ice" Crew: L-R - Adam LeWinter,
Dr. Tad Pfeffer, James Balog, Jeff Orlowski, Svavar Jonatansson. Courtesy
Did you have several teams?
Orlowski: At the beginning, we were really just one
team - the four of us or in luxurious times, five or six people. That
was probably the largest crew we ever had. Often, it was James,
a third person, and me.
EIS time-lapse camera, "Kadin," Columbia
Glacier, Alaska 2007. Courtesy photo.
What's going on now with your project?
Balog: As we sit here, we have 34 cameras on 16 glaciers
Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Montana, and
Alaska and I hope to expand into South America.
How will you shift perceptions of those people
who refuse to believe in climate warming?
Balog: We'll keep beating on the doors, keep putting
the story out there, keep telling the truth. I am idealistic enough
to believe that the truth will eventually get assimilated into societal
behavior. I'm sure it doesn't always happen that way, but I believe
that, because this is the correct thing to be paying attention to, that
we will eventually pay attention to it. There's a famous quote from
Winston Churchill in 1940 or 1941 when Europe
was already at war. The French and the English were trying
to get us to enter that war and Churchill said that you can always
count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after
they've exhausted all the other options. I believe that we will eventually
do the right thing. I heard another quote this morning on TV,
when I was working out in the gym. I'm paraphrasing, but Lincoln
said that just because the probability is that you might fail at a task,
it doesn't mean that you shouldn't try it, so I think that's the basic
challenge in front of us. We should try it anyway and I think we are
going to win. We know how the David and Goliath story
turned out. David eventually wins. It may not be easy and it
may be a high-risk thing, but I believe, because this is such a real
and imminent danger, that this issue will prevail over skepticism.
For those skeptics, what are the advantages of
dealing with this problem?
Balo: It's good for the country. If we deal with climate
change, we create new industries. We create new job possibilities, we
create a healthier air supply for us to breathe, and we can stabilize
some of the geopolitical risks that are inherent in this. There's lots
of positives that come from addressing the excess burning of fossil
fuels and treating that beautiful cerulean air supply out there as a
garbage dump, which is what we've been doing. We consider that to be
a place, where for free, we can throw our refuse. We've been doing that
for four million years since Homo Sapiens came down out of the
world of the chimpanzees. We can't afford to do that anymore.
In Disko Bay, Greenland, 20-story high icebergs
broken off from the Greenland Ice Sheet float into the North Atlantic,
raising sea level. Courtesy photo.
Do you feel optimistic that the planet will take
Balog: I can be depressed about this almost on a daily
basis and for the sake of my sanity, and for the sake of my belief in
my daughters' futures, I can't let myself go there. I've got a 24-year-old
and an 11-year-old and want to offer them, in my own individual,
solitary way, a better world and just refuse to fall into cynicism and
Orlowski: I've been getting more and more optimistic
over the last couple of weeks. Because of events like Sandy,
climate change has become more and more of an issue. People are talking
about it again and in the president's acceptance speech, he acknowledged
it. I think we have to address the consequences of climate change. There
is no way to avoid it and it's just a matter of when it happens and
it's a matter of how bad the damage will be until that point.
Balog: We're all thinking Hurricane Sandy but
it's important to recognize that the current issue, in terms of the
earth's system overall, is that the pattern of extreme, violent events
was predicted and recognized by the climate scientists decades ago.
They were predicting that we're going to see more extreme precipitation,
whether it's snow or rain, more violent storms, more droughts, more
wild fire seasons that will be much more intense because the droughts
make wild fires more possible. All of that is coming to pass and that's
what is amazing to me. Damage has already happened. Climate is changing.
We're seeing the consequences and getting whacked in a big way with
disasters, forest fires, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes and there
are major, multi-billion dollar expenses connected with this. The idea
carbon in the atmosphere would warm the air was put forward at the end
of the 19th Century for God's sake. This is not cutting
edge stuff that some guy in an atomic physics lab in Berkeley
just invented. This is over 100 years old.
How is climate change manifesting in the rest
of the world?
Orlowski: There are island nations that have announced
that they have to relocate their entire population of 100,000
people because they know they're going under water. We know that hundreds
of millions of people will have to relocate as a result of flooding
homelands and we don't need three feet of actual sea level rise to impact
three feet of the coastline. We know just a couple of inches can have
a huge impact because the storms are getting bigger.
EIS field assistant, Adam LeWinter on NE Rim of
Birthday Canyon, approximately 150 deep, atop feature called "Moab."
Greenland Ice Sheet, July 2009. Black deposit in bottom of channel is
cryonconite. Courtesy photo.
Is the damage reversible?
Balog: It's going to be a long process to pull it back
to stabilize it and we won't see the benefits of right action now for
many decades in the future, but I think we could get many positive effects
right now that will have even more positive effects in the future and
a more positive environment. Not taking positive action, at a minimum,
is selfish, immoral, and unethical and to the people of the future,
it may actually appear to be criminal behavior.
What could we, as individual, do starting today?
Orlowski: Unfortunately, there's only so much an individual
person can do. The big stuff has to happen from the governmental level
and needs to happen on a very large scale, and we need to have regulations
on how we burn fossil fuel. The public can use their voice to try to
influence that and that change is going to happen either by the public
demanding it, or when certain leadership recognizes that they have a
responsibility to protect the public from evil they might not even know
Can you cite historic morality references?
Balog: Back in the early 19th Century, right
up until 1861, people were saying we can't stop the industry
of slavery. Slaves were machines for manufacturing goods. That's
how it worked and there was a big sector of the country that was saying
we can't stop, you're going to destroy us and they were willing to go
to war over that. But, stopping slavery was the right thing to do. It
was the ethical and moral position and I don't think any rational person
would see it otherwise.
Orlowski: People of the future will look back at our
use of fossil fuels the same way we look back at slavery. It's a moral
issue and we're at the point right now.
Balog: You know 100 years ago, ten-year-old kids
worked in coal mines and textile factories and that was thought to be
normal and necessary economic behavior. People argued like crazy about
that. Up until I think 1928, women weren't allowed to vote. These were
fundamental principles of the societies at that time. Women can't vote.
Kids can be used in labor. Slaves should be employed for economic
value, but eventually you look back on it and think what was wrong with
those people. Were they crazy?
Adam LeWinter ice climbing in Survey Canyon, Greenland,
a melt zone. Courtesy photo.
Orlowski: It's a shame that this issue has become politicized
- that it's become this Left vs. Right. We don't care
what your political stance is. We don't care what your views on the
environment are. We know that climate change will have an impact on
future generations and it's a shame that it's been turned into a political
football. I believe, deeply, that this is an opportunity right now for
people who have been in that skeptic camp to stand up and say ok, I
recognize what's going on with the science and I'm going to stick my
neck out and go on the trajectory of where the future is going and say
this is something we need to fight for - this is something that I recognize
is a real concern and those people are going to be looked at as the
heroes. There's an opportunity right now for the Republican leadership
to be the heroes that the future will look back on.
Editor' Note: "Chasing Ice" is on screen at Laemmle's
Monica 4 in Santa Monica, Sundance Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Laemmle
theaters in Pasadena and Encino, the Nuart and The Landmark in West
LA. Check your local paper for screening times.