James Balog, Will Steger on 'Chasing Ice' and climate change

Disko Bay, Greenland
In Disko Bay, Greenland, 20-story high icebergs broken off from the Greenland Ice Sheet float into the North Atlantic, raising sea level.
James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey

In a new documentary film National Geographic photographer James Balog documents the impact of climate change by examining polar ice.

The Sundance award-winning "Chasing Ice," is making its Minneapolis premiere Friday. It provides vivid accounts of climate change on the world's glaciers and polar areas through photography, film and personal accounts. Balog, who had been a skeptic about climate change until about 20 years ago, said presenting evidence of climate change may make a difference to people who are still skeptical.

Watch "Chasing Ice" video clips

Balog told NPR's Talk of the Nation: "I am happy to say that in a number of auditoriums where we've presented either my lecture or the film, we've had people come up to us afterwards and say, 'You know, I worked in the oil and gas industry for 40 years,' or, 'You know, I was working for Standard Oil for decades, and I thought this whole climate change story was a lot of rubbish, it was liberal propaganda, it was academic propaganda, whatever, and I didn't realize how true it is.' So that's been immensely gratifying, that the tangible photographic, artistic evidence can move people so dramatically."

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Balog joined The Daily Circuit Friday, Dec. 7 to talk about the film. Minnesota's renowned explorer Will Steger also joined the discussion. Some highlights:


"It's the place where you can see it in three dimensions. As a photographer, I can't just work with words or ideas; I have to be able put it into a rectangular form that people can understand. In ice, you can see it happening. It's the canary in the global coal mine. ... Ice in its own way is more visceral. From the time you're an infant you understand what ice melts...You understand the connection between heat and ice without any intermediate questions in the mix."

Chasing Ice
Explorer Will Steger Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 at MPR Studios in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson


"Unfortunately, you can no longer reach the North Pole by dog team. You need some form of flotation. This is pretty radical in the last 25 years that this has suddenly changed. Two-thirds of the Arctic Ocean opened up last summer. This is actually changing the heat balance of the globe."


"I find the eyewitness account to be very powerful. The science is confusing to a lot of people and it's been used to confuse people. But seeing the actual reality of glacier that's three miles wide and a mile thick disappear before your eyes in 75 minutes ... people are awestruck by it and that's what climate change is."

Chasing Ice
Photographer James Balog Friday, Dec. 7. 2012 at MPR Studios in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson


"Greenland is discharging five times more in the past few years than it did in 1990. That's a tremendous speed-up in the rate of ice loss and the rate of sea level rise that comes from that. These are big changes and it's not just about Greenland having that acceleration. ... It's happening in the Alps, it's happening in the western US including Alaska. These are events that are gathering steam everywhere."


"The goal is fundamentally to bear witness to this monumental historic change. We're in the middle of truly epochal monumental change that is reshaping the earth's landscape as we sit here today. This is human-caused impact on the environment. It's impacting not just the world of ice. It's affecting the water supply, the plants and animals, agriculture, wild fire, especially in the American west. These things are underway right now."


"First we have to realize that we're causing it. The solutions I see as two things. One is developing the new clean energy economy, which in Minnesota we're well endowed in with wind. Solar is coming on board, geothermal and so forth. The other part of the equation is conservation of the energy that we do have and policies that favor this new economy."

Watch "Chasing Ice" video clips


"Ninety-seven percent of scientists in this field understand that there is climate change and that it's human-caused. ... In fact, the alternative view is really not credible. There are a few loud voices out there that are well funded by the fossil fuel industry but their views are terribly marginal. That said, what you really need to look at is the long-term temperature record to really understand the context of this. ... If somebody says, 'I don't believe in measurement, I don't believe in science, I only believe in what I believe in,' then I can't help you. But the evidence is clear and if you're willing to keep your mind and your heart open, people can get this information."


"In Minnesota it's the extremes we're starting to see. The droughts -- we're into a three year drought right now. Also at the same time you have floods like in Duluth, fires like you've had in Ely - we almost lost the town of Ely in May. In southern Minnesota we've had three 1,000 year floods in seven years. But I think in Minnesota the drought and the farming is a very serious thing. Minnesota is especially prone because we're away from the calming influence of the ocean. In Minnesota people are feeling it in their gut, starting to see it, people are looking at the reality of the science. People are getting it and I think we're going to start looking at it in Minnesota."


"The thing that I come back to a lot is the idea that we have to use our voices. Yeah, you can change your lightbulb, yes, you can change the kind of car you're driving...but I think the way that you as an individual can do is to spread the message. Reshape the mental landscape that you live in. You change the way that people around you are thinking, acting, behaving and you continue to spread this news out. We don't have a problem of economics, technology and policy. The answers are there. There have been lots of smart women and men that have figured out those answers, especially on the technology side. What we've been missing is perception and the perception comes from adequately and properly communicating the reality of this story."


"Climate change is a universal human issue. It doesn't belong to left or right, Republican or Democrat. It's important to understand that this issue transcends petty partisan politics. We try to keep this story on that plane and I think it's unfortunate, at best, that it's been politicized and we hope to better than that."