James Whitlow Delano and @EveryDayClimateChange

by Robin Madel

6/04/15

Our world is filled with beauty and natural wonders. Humans add to the beauty, but our actions can also take it away. Photojournalist James Whitlow Delano has seen this firsthand, and recently he’s been hard at work demonstrating the impacts of climate change on people and the environment, all around the planet.

Delano created @EveryDayClimateChange on Instagram, a photographic endeavor by a diverse group of photographers from five continents, to document visual evidence of one of humanity’s greatest threats and challenges. According to Delano, “People in the developing world don’t need to be told about climate change. They are already living with the consequences.”

I caught up with Delano via email for this week’s Heroic Endeavor.

You talk with people around the world who are directly affected by climate change. What are their major concerns and how do they cope?

Frankly, they worry about falling DEEPER into poverty. This is not hyperbole. It has given me a whole, different worldview. It may sound obvious but, in tight times, I now consider how lucky I am that I do not have to worry about hunger. We have plenty to worry about in the industrialized North but hunger is a worry that few worry about.

I have met and spoken to people almost entirely dependent on the rainforest for food, with a complement of agriculture, who in 30 years have gone from food-stable to one or two meals a day. They usually lack the skills to “change jobs” from hunter/farmer to anything but being a migrant living in a crime-ridden slum, forfeiting their Einstein-like knowledge of the environment to offer themselves as unskilled day laborers with all the potential abuses that go along with that status. Again, this is not melodrama or hyperbole — it is reality.

On the other end of the spectrum, on the fringes of deserts people are being forced to migrate to cities because drought, poor water use, population increase or all of these factors are creating masses of climate refugees. Life on the fringes of the Gobi and Sahara are often no longer viable.

Concern about the environment in the US is one of the few political issues with bipartisan appeal. Who doesn’t want their child to breathe clean air and drink clean water? Right?

What do people in other cultures want from the US? Is there a single most important climate action that people in other cultures want the US to take?

That is such a complex question. It varies depending on the view of the US. My wife is Japanese, and I remember her surprise when she learned that other countries (other than Japan) focused on the US’ every move. It still is an indispensable nation.

I think a better question might be, “What does the US want to do with its power for the world?” The US spends billions on military interventions. This is not the place to discuss the merits of that but, here in Japan, or in the case of China, they are investing in infrastructure projects.

Again, this opens up a hornet’s nest, but what I think the US can learn is that smaller, community-focused projects like the Japanese do abroad can work better. Most important, the American propensity of short attention span is our country’s Achilles heel. If there would be one common denominator I hear from abroad is that they worry that the American government or even private institutions for our country have a track record of beginning projects and then not sustaining them.

There are good people, doing good things abroad from the US, but it is a systemic flaw.

The flip side is the challenge where the Chinese government comes, cash-in-hand, and does not scrutinize the recipient nation about the consequences of building new seaports on pristine coasts, roads into pristine rainforests, or exactly where every penny goes. So, there are some officials in recipient nations who prefer to work with the Chinese government on development schemes but I have seen serious, potentially irreversible damage to the environment and violations of indigenous peoples’ land rights done as a result.

The environment that sustains life on this planet, the only known place in the universe to support life, is truly at a crossroads. So many of the achievements of the environmental movement are being erased by these activities. Intensifying droughts, floods, blizzards in places that they should not be and snowless winters in the Sierras are the result.

From the perspective of someone who is from the US but lives in another country and travels the world, why do you think the US isn’t taking more action on climate change?

The US can do a lot but it is a big world with billions of capable citizens of many countries who have ideas about their own fate — so, there is a limit to what the US can do. Actually, Western European countries and Japan, with carbon footprints nearly half the average American’s, with solid, highly developed public transportation systems, could teach the US about efficient energy and resource use. That said, the US is still the society most capable of change on the planet.

Concern about the environment in the US is one of the few political issues with bipartisan appeal. Who doesn’t want their child to breathe clean air and drink clean water? Right?

The US has a wonderful system of protected lands but defunding and misuse of existing protected land is a problem. Again, to maintain and expand protection of our natural treasures is always going to be a fight but foreign visitors come to the US to marvel at the open space and the protected natural spaces. Effective propaganda, like talk radio and tabloid cable TV, misdirects people’s concerns and turns a democracy that was once a model for the world into a sclerotic political food fight that is fast becoming a global laughing stock.

What do you want people who follow Everyday Climate Change to learn?

First and foremost, I am learning from the brilliant posts by other photographers. My goal is to demystify and depoliticize this issue. I want people to connect with those often on the other side of the consumption change. I fully expect skepticism but that is why, for a reader/viewer who cannot go and see these things, I founded the @everydayclimatechange Instagram feed.

The photographs clearly show that this is happening everywhere. Not every photo hits the bull’s eye and I do check to be sure the photos portray human-induced climate change, but what the feed creates is a drip, drip, drip of information that clearly shows that the consequences (and solutions) to climate change are out there for all of us to see. It may not be apparent every single moment of our busy lives but when we learn to identify or place down time markers, it can be like climbing slowly up a slope, turning around and being astonished at how much change accumulates over time, one step at a time.

How did you recruit photographers for Everyday Climate Change (ECC)?

The photo community is tight and small. I have learned over the years how photographers are eager to come together for an important cause. ECC is no different.

I have been humbled by the efforts of participating photographers. Over time, the quality of images has been very high. I have learned about environmental hotspots I was not aware of beforehand. So, I believe that the feed really provides an opportunity to look at the world in a new way and the photos clearly state why these treasures are worth saving and how, the mostly less-fortunate, bear the heaviest burden. Now we are seeing more of the consequences of global warming in the industrialized, temperate regions.

What’s the hardest thing for you personally about shooting environmental crises?

Clearly the most difficult thing is to find a way to transmit what I have seen to people who are bombarded by images all day long. I try to present stories in a new, human-scale way in a media world with limited space.

Climate change is a slow-moving train wreck and generally gets less space in the adrenaline-fueled media cycle than base jumpers, a new Hollywood release, ISIS or other hyperventilation-inducing stories. At the end of the day, however, what will affect the world the most? I believe the environment will. It could be argued, too, that climate change and greater competition for water and resources is the shadow player in the wars in Syria, Iraq, the Sahel region of Africa, etc.

Is there any place in the world that you haven’t been to and are eager to photograph?

Too many to count. Here is a short list:

The Karakorum Mountains;

Vast stretches of the Himalaya and Andes I have not yet photographed;

More of the Amazon;

Bolivia, Peru;

Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Antarctica, northern Siberia;

More of the Congo Basin;

New Guinea;

I think you get the point!

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