“You will never see a headline that says ‘Climate change broke out today.’”
—Andrew Revkin, New York Times reporter, 2007
Scientists around the world are confident that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are drastically changing the climate. They draw this conclusion from a broad collection of evidence, including that:
- over the past decade, sea levels have risen at almost double the rate that they have over the last century.
- records starting in 1880 (when scientists started recording global average surface temperature) have shown that the earth is warming and that most of this warming has occurred since 1970. The ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1997, with 2014 being the warmest year of all.
- glaciers around the world are rapidly retreating and ice sheets are shrinking. Glaciers have lost a total of roughly 400 billion tons of mass each year since 1994.
- surface ocean waters have become about 30 percent more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution (oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide humans emit into the atmosphere, and as a result, become more acidic).
Despite the overwhelming evidence (and the findings listed above represent only the tip of the iceberg—no pun intended), it can be hard to understand and visualize the impacts of climate change. It is easy to see and feel the weather on a given day—if it’s sunny, rainy, snowy, hot, humid, etc.—but changes in the climate involve significant shifts in temperature, rainfall, wind, and other environmental factors that occur over decades or more. We can’t say whether the climate is changing based on our own observations over the course of days, months, or even years. So while scientists can study temperature records that have been collected over decades or more, how can the broader public get a clear picture of what “climate change” actually means?
Many artists have started to play an important role in helping to increase public awareness and understanding of climate change’s impacts. Some have turned to film—like Greenpeace’s Postcards from Climate Change, Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, and Ben Kalina’s Shored Up. Others, like David Arnold at Double Exposure, have used photography to show climate change’s dramatic but often unseen effects. Arnold returns to the sites of historic photographs of coral reefs and glaciers, some from as early as the 1930s, and replicates the original photos. Double Exposure then pairs the new and old photos together so viewers can see how each environment has changed over time.
Corals and the huge diversity of organisms they support are important in the fishing and tourism industries, and coral reefs also provide natural barriers that protect coastal communities from storms and floods. Yet, climate change poses a significant threat to corals—both through coral bleaching (a serious coral disease caused by increasing ocean temperatures) and ocean acidification, which reduces coral’s ability to grow and recover from damage and disease.
South Carysfort Reef, Florida Keys
Before photo: Bill Harrigan, 1980. Used with permission. After photo: David Arnold, 2011. Used with permission.
Discovery Bay, Jamaica
Before photo: Jim Porter, 1970. Used with permission. After photo: David Arnold, 2011. Used with permission.
Glaciers are a major provider of freshwater, both for drinking and for electricity generation, and also play a role in global climate regulation. But increases in temperature associated with climate change are causing them to melt rapidly. This raises ocean levels, threatening coastal communities around the world.
Before photo: © Bradford Washburn, 1938 Courtesy of Archives, University of Alaska. Used with permission. After photo: © David Arnold, 2007. Used with permission.
Before photo: © Bradford Washburn, 1937. Taken on June 18, 1932 at noon. Used with permission. After photo: © David Arnold, 2007. Taken on September 13, 2006 at noon. Used with permission.
There are many barriers to responding to climate change. It can be expensive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially since fossil fuels are currently the cheapest form of energy to produce and use. Historical tensions and vast inequality in power, wealth, and greenhouse gas emissions between countries of the global North and the global South complicate international climate change negotiations. Local political disputes, including the denial of broadly accepted climate change science along partisan lines in the U.S. Congress, make reaching significant mitigation and adaptation agreements challenging. But despite these barriers, artistic efforts like Arnold’s can help to inspire individuals to take action in their own lives, facilitate a more widespread understanding of the importance of climate change, and build enough political will for governments to take strong action to curb the effects of climate change.
For more on the causes and effects of climate change, as well as how to respond, check out our new full-length unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice. Lessons include opportunities for students to analyze countries’ greenhouse gas emissions data, the ways climate change impacts individual species, and how climate change policies are depicted in the media.
A lesson from the unit was also featured in the Jan/Feb issue of Social Education.
More photographs, as well as an extensive collection of additional resources on climate change’s effects on glaciers and coral reefs, can be found at Double Exposure’s website.