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Chasing Ice bewitches eyes but won’t change minds

Chasing Ice is trying to get us out of the climate change hole we’ve dug for ourselves. EPA/Baard Ness

Science seems to be failing to change the minds of those who are sceptical about the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Chasing Ice - a film by Jeff Orlowski, playing in Australia currently - tries instead to change minds through dramatic images. The aim is laudable, and the film beautiful, but the message narrowly misses the mark.

Central to this film is the belief that we cannot divorce civilisation from nature. This vision is rendered in James Balog’s extraordinary photographs of ice and his compilation of video footage of glaciers melting at an unnatural rate. The film argues that global warming promises to transform sublime beauty to sublime horror.

Chasing Ice is a significant film. It is exciting to the mind and visual imagination of anyone who accepts climate change as a reality. But its narrative is not riveting, and probably not persuasive to most climate change sceptics.

The film tells the story of evidence overwhelming disbelief: once, Balog himself did not take climate change seriously. But in his fascination with photographing ice he found that when he returned to many glaciers they were receding at a remarkable rate.

He was shocked at what he saw. He had not believed that human beings had the power to bring about changes of this magnitude. To make his findings public, he and his team placed 30 video cameras in Greenland, Alaska, Montana and Iceland.

The intention was not only to “record a powerful piece of history unfolding”, but also to provide visual evidence to a public that does not want to hear statistics. His video footage does indeed show glaciers coming to an end; it shows how in a two year period physical features of glaciers disappearing, breaking apart, and literally melting into the sea.

The film includes some incredible footage of glaciers.

Chasing Ice’s limitations as an argument are due to its diluted narrative.

The film should have focused on how the video evidence, taken over a period of two years, demonstrates the fact of climate change. Instead there are three narratives, two of which should have fed the main thesis rather than vied for attention. Balog’s beautiful images of ice, and the drama of his battling obstacles against the odds in securing his evidence, could have been woven into the film more successfully: cameras breaking, problems with the timer, batteries exploding and foxes eating into cables, cables becoming dislodged and buried in snow and Balog’s problems with his knees could not compete with the film’s prime message.

These story lines deflect attention away from the main argument: the significance of the unusual calving of glaciers. Successfully visualising this calving is of supreme importance. Science education to date has failed to communicate the urgency of the need to counteract climate change: maybe art can fill the gap.

The film opens with a sequence of sceptics proclaiming climate change is based on an invalid argument, nonsensical and exaggerated. I expected the film would subvert this disbelief (and of course in many ways it does).

So why do I harbour reservations about this film? It will gain instant support from those already persuaded that climate change is real. But I was disappointed the film did not confront the climate change deniers with their findings. When we see James Balog introduced to a forum of interested parties, I doubt there were any sceptics in the audience. There was a sense of converting the converts.

The director explains what he was trying to do with Chasing Ice.

The film would have been more powerful if disbelievers had an opportunity to voice their objections. Certainly the film predicted the opposition and provided charts and graphs “proving” that changes in glaciers could not be explained by natural causes. There was the canny inclusion of an insurance broker whose business offered policies allowing people to insure against the impact of climate change. He declared himself an ex-climate change sceptic who now, after having to do the research for business reasons, was a “believer”. Imagine how provocative it would have been to include in this film a debate between experts with conflicting views.

But this is a film not to be missed - mostly because of Balog’s obsession with ice and they way his love of photographing its sublime beauty alerted him as if, by chance, to physical changes in the glaciers. In the first instance he celebrated the beauty of ice; his veneration of nature led him to the awareness that our civilisation was destroying its own source of being.

Balog’s photographs are works of art and they are breathtaking. The film is a powerful tool for changing perceptions, perceptions which science education has failed to shift. Chasing Ice’s visualisation of the problem is a means of overcoming disinterest and ignorance. I do, though, hope for a sequel in which disbelievers are written into the script. It would be fascinating to observe their stance and perhaps even witness a conversion.

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