Photographing the Climate Crisis - 15 Years of Stories - Sean Gallagher - Photographer & Filmmaker | Beijing, China

Photographing the Climate Crisis – 15 Years of Stories

Posted by on Aug 9, 2021 in News | No Comments

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On 9th August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on the effects and impacts of the climate crisis. This new report outlined the deepening crisis in which our global community finds itself pointing the finger squarely at humanity for self-inflicting upon itself the worst effects of climate change.

“Humanity’s damaging impact on the climate is a “statement of fact”, say UN scientists in a landmark study”, reports the BBC. “The report says that ongoing emissions of warming gases could also see a key temperature limit broken in just over a decade. The authors also show that a rise in sea levels approaching 2m by the end of this century “cannot be ruled out”.”

As the news of the report’s release have intensified in the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on my work over the last 15 years documenting some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis. These have included droughts in India, sea level rise in Pacific island nations, air pollution in China, deforestation in Cambodia and melting glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau.

Throughout all of my journeys, my main aim has been to try to understand how individuals, families and communities are being affected by our changing world. What I have witnessed has often been distressing but at the same time the resilience, hope and a will to adapt has been ever-present amongst the people I have met and who have shared their lives with me so I was able to document their reality.

Below are a sampling of images from stories I have worked on over the years detailing some of the main issues we face as a global community. The climate crisis can often seem too large, or its effects too distant to do anything about it. However, I hope my images provide glimpses of the reality of the crisis and alert people to the severity of the threats we are all facing now.

EMISSIONS

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Emissions continue to be belched from power stations and factories around the world, just like this one in the Chinese coastal city of Tianjin. They produce energy that powers and builds modern societies, as well as producing goods that we all consume every day. According to the BBC, “emissions have gone up by 1.5% per year in the last decade. In 2018, the total reached 55 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent. This is putting the Earth on course to experience a temperature rise of 3.2C by the end of this century.” As I travelled the length of Bohai Bay in 2019, it felt as though trails of smoke from factories and power stations were constantly in my peripheral vision. They are powering both China’s rise and feeding the demands of the West for Chinese made goods. Much of the coastal area where these facilities stand in Bohai Bay lie only within a few metres of sea level and are in direct threat should sea-levels rise as predicted, or if the region suffers from more severe storm surges. Both of these scenarios have been spelled out by scientists as highly likely to occur. The economic impact to this region would be significant, as well as the potential environmental impacts of flooding in this heavily industrialised region.

FROM THE STORY: Bohai – China’s Threatened Coastline

AIR POLLUTION

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A young couple, Ms. Lu and Mr. Li, hold hands during a walk through Beijing’s Olympic Park. “I’m pretty sad about this. It’s worse and worse”, explains Li. “I think the pollution is bad for our health. The PM2.5 damages our lungs [but] we don’t have any choice”, he laments. “I left China two and half years ago. Then it wasn’t so bad. I’ve been abroad. I know what’s good [air] and what’s bad. Young people care more than old people. We have more information. We know how bad it is.” PM2.5 reading – 218 – Very Unhealthy

FROM THE STORY: Beijing – The Masked City

MELTING GLACIERS

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Catching the runoff water from the tongue of ice before us, the lake positively glistens on this rare clear day. Like the Hailuogou glacier which I visited last week, the Dagu glacier is slowly disappearing as a result of rising temperatures on the plateau. Retreat among the glaciers of the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau is widespread and alarming. “Around 90 percent of the glaciers of West China (including the Tibetan Plateau) have retreated since 1980. Retreat rates have increased during the last 50 years,” according to Wilfred Theakstone of England’s Manchester University.

FROM THE STORY: Between the Glacier and the Dam

RISING SEA LEVELS

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A young boy swims in a flooded area near the airport runway, in downtown Funafuti. Parts of the island flood at this time of the year due to the ‘king tides’. The king tides are seasonal and are characterised by very high water levels in the surrounding ocean. At this time of year the waves inundate the coastline but also water seeps up through the ground which is made of porous coral. This natural phenomenon is particularly serious for Tuvalu, a low-lying atoll island nation, whose highest point is only a few metres above sea level. As sea levels rise, the king tides regularly flood parts of the island and will likely increase in severity in the future, potentially making large parts of the nation uninhabitable.

FROM THE STORY: Tuvalu – Beneath the Rising Tide

EXTREME WEATHER

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A tropical storm descends on Southern China’s Guangdong Province. Wetlands are found on every continent on earth, in the form of rivers, shallow lakes, swamps, mangroves, estuaries and floodplains. They are valued for their ability to store floodwaters, protect shorelines, improve water quality, and recharge groundwater aquifers.

The relationship between man and wetlands, however, has always been one of an uneasy balance. For the past few hundred years, this balance has gone against wetlands throughout the world, threatening these lands which mankind relies so heavily upon. China’s wetlands cover some 65 million hectares, ranking first in Asia and representing ten percent of the world’s total wetlands. A quiet crisis is occurring however as these important waters are quickly disappearing.

FROM THE STORY: China’s Disappearing Wetlands

FLOODING

Located on the northern shores of the island of Java, the Indonesian capital of Jakarta is on the front line of climate change.

In January of 2013, the city was engulfed by floods, which submerged over a third of the city, bringing the world’s tenth most populous city to a standstill. With nearly 40% of the city lying beneath sea level, this deluge of water was not a rare event for the millions of Jakartans who live in this sprawling megalopolis that was originally built upon a swamp and confluence of 13 rivers. It is the increasing frequency of these floods that is beginning to worry residents as they begin to battle these inundations year on year.

FROM THE STORY: Jakarta – The Sinking City

FOREST FIRES

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It was quite surreal and sad to photograph this scene of a recently burnt out forest in the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary, in northern Cambodia. Fires in the area are lit by farmers, loggers and local people looking to either capture wildlife or clear land for agriculture. Gazing out onto this land which had been consumed by fire just days before, a strange quiet hung over the area and all I could hear was the crackling sound of my footsteps as they stepped on the blackened undergrowth below. ~~~ In 2018, fires burnt in record numbers throughout the forests of north and central Cambodia. At their peak during the dry season between January and March, it is estimated up to 1,800 fires were burning in the country, more than in any other country throughout South East Asia at that time.

FROM THE STORY: Cambodia Burning

DEFORESTATION

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Two recently felled trees lie in the Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, in northern Cambodia. The sanctuary exists in name only as most of its forests have been cleared for agriculture. ~~~ The South East Asian country has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world and it is estimated only 3% of primary forest is left throughout the country. ~~~ The main drivers behind deforestation in Cambodia are conversion of forest lands for agricultural use and targeted logging of valuable species, such as Rosewood, for the Asian furniture markets. Rubber plantations are the most ubiquitous and are spread throughout the country.

FROM THE STORY: Cambodia Burning

DROUGHT

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In the summer of 2016, parts of India experienced record drought as a result of consecutive failed monsoons. Global temperature records were broken each month in 2016 and India itself recorded its highest temperature of 51C. In conjunction with El Nino effects, this caused extreme environmental stresses in large parts of the country.

I travelled to the city of Latur, in the state of Maharashtra, identified as the country’s worst affected area where up to 15,000 villages were believed to be without water. The images focus on how community’s lives were being affected by the drought, documenting the long and dangerous journeys people are taking to find water, the stresses placed on farmers and the physical environmental stresses on the region. As global temperatures continue to rise, the record drought of 2016 is predicted to be a recurring event in a country that is struggling to adapt to a warming world.

FROM THE STORY: Drought in India

DESERTIFICATION

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Desertification is the gradual transformation of arable and habitable land into desert, usually caused by climate change and/or the improper use of land. Each year, desertification and drought account for US$42 billion loss in food productivity worldwide. In China, nearly 20% of land area is desert. As a result of a combination of poor farming practices, drought and increased demand for groundwater, desertification has become arguably China’s most important environmental challenge. As the effects of increasing desertification appear, farmers are forced to abandon their land, levels of rural poverty rise and the intensity of sandstorms, which batter northern and western China each year, continue to intensify.

FROM THE STORY: Desertification in China

BIODIVERSITY LOSS

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The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and it is believed only between 2500-4000 remain in the wild, a population drop of approx. 50% in the past 60-75 years.

According to IUCN, “The species was once found throughout Sri Lanka, but today elephants are restricted mostly to the lowlands in the dry zone…the species continues to lose range to development activities throughout the island.” Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most threatened biodiversity hotspots and is an important example of the struggle developing nations have with exploitation of their natural resources, at the cost of precious endemic fauna and flora.

FROM THE STORY: Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka

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