Hey Deniers, Take a Long Look at the Faces of Climate Change

'Facing Climate Change' highlights four different communities already grappling with a warming planet.
Rising global temperatures are an unforgiving reality for communities who make their living off the land. (Photo: Facing Climate Change)
Mar 8, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

The impacts of a changing climate often seem so big, so complicated, and so global that they're often impossible to truly understand—much less slow.

The ability to miniaturize—to bring the impacts of things like rising sea levels and ocean acidification, the loss of snowpack and habitat loss—down to the individual, local level is hard, and an often overlooked story.

There are dozens of papers published each year focused on forecasting what the world will be like as temperatures and pollution continue to grow. But putting faces to the people and communities already being impacted—real people, experiencing real change—may be the best way to help us focus on what’s happening right now.

Last week, Washington-based documentarians Sara Joy Steele and Benj Drummond began to distribute online four short films, shot not far from their own backyard, that take a powerful look at how some very real people are dealing with the impacts of a quickly-evolving planet.

Their “Facing Climate Change” series tells four very distinct stories about four different-but-related climate change impacts:

• The changing future of oyster farming in Willapa Bay, Washington, thanks to ocean acidification.

• The impacts of rising sea levels on both the economics and culture of the Swinomish Tribe, which has lived along the Lower Skagit River for centuries.

• The transition from potato growing by farmers along the Snake River to wind energy providers because there is less snowpack—thus less water to irrigate with—in the mountains of the Columbia River Basin.

• And the loss of habitat among the Umatilla Tribe in northeastern Oregon due to increases in water and air temperatures, impacting its ability to live off the land.

Each of the four-minute videos is focused on an individual in the community. Each is well-crafted and smart, in addition to looking great. Graduates of Carleton College, Steele and Drummons come from the documentary photography world. Photographer Drummond is the more visual of the pair, Steele more the storyteller, though she admits with a two-person team everybody does a little bit of everything. I caught up with her this week.

TakePart: Where did the idea for the series come from?

Sara Joy Steele: We started working on Facing Climate Change in 2006, focused on issues in the Arctic, in Norway, Greenland and Iceland, mostly focused on photography and writing. It was while we were spending time in Norway that I found myself in the middle of herds of galloping reindeer, which got me excited about capturing the sound of what we were doing. I started by burying the audio recorder in the mud to capture the reindeer hooves, which turned the stories into multi-media pieces.

We now live in Eastern Washington state and decided we wanted to work on something closer to home. One of the things that really inspired us was the Climate Impact Group, part of the College of Environment at the University of Washington, which published a 400 page report on climate change in the Columbia River Basin, looking at the next 20, 40, 60, 80 years out. It was pretty scientifically intense so we wanted to get the information out to larger audience, to really involve the people who would be impacted.

How did you settle on these first four communities?

It was a long process. The report was divided into eight sectors of the economy, including human health, forests, coasts, big picture things like that. We wanted to take each of those sectors and find one story to reflect each impact. We didn’t follow it super strictly, because ocean acidification, which is the focus of our oyster farming piece, wasn’t in the report.

On each we would work with a scientist, learn more about the subject, and then work with the community to find the best people to help us tell the story. The father and daughter oyster farmers. The Idaho potato farmer. The tribal elders. Each was a super-collaborative process, involving lots of partners, which has so important to us given how complicated the topic is. We wanted to make sure we got the science right and make sure the people we worked with approved. These are their stories.

How are you sharing the short films?

Right now we’re mostly showing them online. We’re working on an Earth Day launch event in downtown Seattle.

Given that the stories are recorded as still photographs, audio and video, there are so many ways to repurpose them that we can have gallery shows, write them for magazines, do the short videos.

One of our big goals for this series [is] to organize town hall events in the communities where the stories were filmed. We would like the main audience to be the communities where the stories came from, to include more voices in the conversation. Often people in these communities don’t see themselves as environmentalists, or are used to even talking about climate change, and we want to bring those people into the conversation. And to bring the other stories to them as well.

What, or who, is next?

These first four were shot in rural locations. The next two focus on the impacts of climate change on more urban environments in the Northwest.