Connecting with audiences thousands-strong during my speaking tours about the importance of stewardship for our ailing planet has been one of the great pleasures of my career in conservation photography. I am always grateful for the experience of sharing tears and laughter with them, but most rewarding of all is the hush that falls when I present the stark reality of climate change using only a single image.
Conservation is, unfortunately, mired with controversy. As a citizen of this great planet, I am confronted by the same misconception every day: climate change is a natural cycle on which humans have little or no impact. Until recently, my first reaction was always to get offended, visions of polar bear corpses, sea ice-free Arctic winters, melting permafrost, rising sea levels, and the smoldering remains of what were once lush Amazonian forests flashing through my mind. I would launch into a long, technical explanation about the increase of carbon emissions caused by the industrial revolution while struggling to retain objectivity as my emotions flared inside me. It was a poor strategy for representing the facts, often leading to frustration and hurt feelings on both sides. Then one day, I discovered a graph illustrating historic atmospheric carbon dioxide levels on NASA's website. The evidence of human impact was unmistakable, so I saved it on my phone for quick access. After several years of sharing it with audiences ranging from one person to thousands, it has never failed to elicit a lightbulb moment – click here to download it for yourself.
In 2012, scientists at Antarctica's Italian-owned Zucchelli Station invited me to photograph their ice-drilling project at Dome C, home of the Concordia Research Station that Italy operates in partnership with France. They are not the only nations extracting these coveted ice core samples – the Russians and the Americans have been working tirelessly as well, enduring -50℉ temperatures and drilling miles below the ice surface to expose the secrets of our changing planet. After decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars invested, these hardy scientists have elegantly compiled 800,000 years of data into a handful of pixels on your screen.
The human-induced spike of atmospheric carbon dioxide seen today is even more distressing in the context of history. It is difficult for our species to comprehend cosmic timescales, so condensing Earth's chronology into a single 24-hour day, with each second representing roughly 52,000 years, is a helpful exercise. The planet's formation four and a half billion years ago marks 0:00 on our clock. At 4:00, the first single-celled organisms appear. It takes another fourteen and a half hours for complex, multiple-celled organisms to evolve, followed by seaweed at 20:28 and jellyfish at 20:48. Dinosaurs appear on the scene well past bedtime at 22:56, followed by the first mammals at 23:39. Our earliest ancestors are very late to the party, emerging a minute before midnight at 23:58:43. Modern humans similar to you and I have inhabited only the last few seconds of this 24-hour time scale equivalent. Our population has exploded to nearly eight billion people in that brief period – a meteoric rise that coincides precisely with the unprecedented and dramatic increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Levels rose above 300ppm for the first time in 1950, and the hockey stick-like upward trend continues.
Without urgent action, we will soon bear witness to the extinction of millions of species, including our own. The Earth will likely recover sometime in the distant future, but the devastation we will have been responsible for in the meantime is heartbreaking to consider. I do not believe we can leave climate change in the hands of politicians and governments. One example of many in which our leaders are failing this crucial test can be found in my home country, Canada, where the Liberal-led minority government is wasting $12 billion of tax-payer dollars to increase exports of the world's dirtiest oil rather than sounding the alarm and enacting essential measures to reverse our trajectory. It is a staggeringly short-sighted, dangerous, and politically motivated move.
The responsibility of taking action has once again fallen to you and me. As ordinary people living ordinary lives, we have the power to shape our shared future every time we leave the house, plan a meal, or swipe our credit cards. I don't know about you, but I have little interest in moving to Mars – it will be a privilege to spend my remaining years fighting alongside the millions of others standing up on behalf of the only home our species has ever known. To get involved in the movement, please visit Only One and join The Tide.