Thursday, 25 June 2009 09:33 Picture It!
Written by Ava

Here's how to make a successful book. Take two climate change advocates--one climate modeller, one photographer, mix them together, add some beautiful pictures, and a pinch of some of the best climate  information around and Voila! You get Climate Change: Picturing The Science, the popular book by Gavin Schmidt and Josh Wolfe, which shows the impact of climate change through glorious photos.

Some of the best shots include pictures of the ocean, with threats to coral reefs and increasing ocean acidification, shots of the coast, and the sensitive polar ecosystems.  You won't believe your eyes!

After all, a picture is worth a thousand words!


Can each of you tell me about your backgrounds?

Gavin has been a climate modeler at NASA GISS for the last 13 years and a co-founder and contributor to, a website run by climate scientists to help inform discussions on the topic. Josh is a photographer specializing in climate and related issues and is the founder of GHG Photos, an agency focusing on climate change.

Gavin, tell me about the founding of your blog

The idea for RealClimate started in 2004 after the movie the Day After Tomorrow when I was disappointed that the scientific community as a whole did not really engage with the issues raised by the representation of science in that movie. It could have been a good chance to engage with a curious public and demonstrate what the science was all about, but apart from a couple of static webpages there was very little out there. I and a few others saw the blog as a way in which people could interact more easily and where the scientists could have a direct input to the public, to journalists, to editors in ways that weren't overly technical or so compressed as to be meaningless.

Josh, you founded GHG Photos, an agency representing photographers specializing in climate change. Why is climate change such an important issue to photograph?

Climate change is an issue that is hard to visualize. You are dealing with an abstract concept but one that has real consequences. Humans have taken to burning fuels that release a type of gas that trap heat as they slowly build up in the atmosphere. That is much harder to photograph than the latest war, election, or sporting event. So I think it is important to cultivate a group of photographers that are committed to taking on the challenge.

Gavin, you’re a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in NY and Josh, you’re a photographer.  What made the two of you come together to write this book Climate Change: Picturing the Science?

Around 2005, Josh was organizing a gallery show of photographers working on climate change and he asked Gavin to come down and check the captions. We started talking and realized that we both had an interest in trying to expand the range of information being shared with the public – Josh and his colleagues were trying to get away from clichéd images of polar bears, Gavin and his colleagues trying to expand the context behind the headlines and sound bites in the mainstream media. From that a book project was born.

Tell us about the book. What do you hope it says when it speaks to the public? What message should it convey?

The idea is to give people a flavor for what the real science is and what political options there are. It's not a tract or a polemic or a textbook, but rather an attempt to share the knowledge, approaches and hard work that the scientists have put in. There is so much more that we know than ever makes it into a newspaper column, and yet so few ways for normal people to get a grip on that. The book is designed to be accessible and to allow readers to dig deeper into all the complexities if they are curious about it. There are many people who know that the superficial coverage they come across every day is not complete and this book is there to help feed their hunger for more information.

There are so many climate change skeptics who would argue it’s so not a big deal.  Why is climate change such an important issue?

Whenever there is a scientific issue that appears to have political or ethical implications, people often react by attacking the science rather than dealing with the reality. It's just easier to believe there isn't a problem than think about what it means to move to a less carbon-intensive society. The challenge is of course huge, but it will be the defining problem of this century and the sooner we get started on dealing with it – in many different ways – the better off we will be.

You books attempts to tell us about climate change through pictures.  What do photos say about climate change that perhaps words can’t?

We choose the combination of photos and text because images can illuminates things that the text cannot and vice versa. Imagery allows people to wrap their minds around complex phenomena in a way that text can’t always achieve. A great example is the bleaching of coral reefs. It is one thing to read about it but another to see it. At the same time, without the text the scientific understanding would be lost. The text and the images work off each other to give a much deeper impression than either could have achieved on their own.
Do you have an marine biology or marine-life related photos and can you give me a few examples? (how climate change affects the ocean, fish, corals, etc etc.)

Obviously the ocean is key to both how the planet is reacting to climate change and to human pollution, but it is also a place where the impacts are likely to be severe. We cover the threats to coral reefs from temperature rises and increasing ocean acidification; the impacts of agricultural runoff on coastal areas; and the sensitivity of polar ecosystems to changes in sea ice among other issues.   

What do the pictures say about climate change’s effects on the marine world?

It's likely to be profound. There are so many other stresses on oceans – from overfishing to excessive dumping and spills – that climate impacts (on temperatures and circulation) combined with the chemical impacts of the increasing amount of dissolved carbon  - are potentially going to push many ecosystems to the brink.

How do you two believe we can keep our bodies of water and our marine life from being affected?

Unfortunately, it's past the point where we can keep the oceans in a pristine condition. However, while working to reduce the carbon emissions that are the primary driver of future climate change and acidification, we can certainly also try and reduce the other stresses that contribute to the problems. Increasing the use of marine reserves, restrictions on unsustainable fishing practices, better controls on waste dumping in coastal and mid-ocean regions would all help.  

Gavin, it’s been said that you are the news media’s conscience news media’s conscience on climate science, exposing exaggeration and opinion on your blog. Do you think the book does this as well?

Climate change is one of those topics where many people feel qualified to make up their own 'facts' in support of whatever political outcome they are pushing for. What we've tried to do both on the blog and in the book, is give people a better appreciation for what can and can't be said and to try and elevate the discussion so that it is about real issues – not manufactured controversies.  

Do either of you believe your book has helped to make improvements in the way some people look at climate change or perhaps how the issue is covered in the media?

We have been getting a great response from people and reviewers and so we certainly hope that it is making an impact. It's unlikely to single-handedly change the way the issue is dealt with, but it is part of a growing bank of resources that people can use to better understand what is going on. This issue is not going away, and so these efforts can eventually add up to something meaningful.

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