Earth Under Fire

IN 1998, when photojournalist Gary Braasch read an Atlantic Monthly article about climate change, he scrawled the phrase “world tour of global warming” in the margin. At the time, the effects
of global warming were — for the most part — still confined to the future, predictions rather than current events. While most scientists understood the reality of climate change, only a few connected global warming with real, photographable people and places.

Braasch, undeterred, began a project called World View of Global Warming, and over the next seven years, funded by grants and assignments, he took his camera to every continent, searching out the fingerprints of global warming on the here and now. He has collected many of the results in Earth under Fire.

Much has changed since 1998: It’s all but impossible for the reading or viewing public to escape news of climate change, or its proven and suspected effects on the present. Images of disappearing Pacific islands, thawing permafrost, and melting glaciers are all sadly familiar.

But in Earth under Fire, Braasch digs deeper into these well-known phenomena and maps larger patterns. Here are pictures of melting glaciers, yes, but also less recognizable images of biologists head down and tail up in the Alaskan tundra, Tuvaluan kids dangling their toes in unusually high tides, a woman in northern Guangdong Province, China, carrying water past a fishpond evaporated by drought. Braasch also documents a geothermal power station in Iceland, green roofs in Chicago, and other signs of innovation and hope.

His in-depth accompanying text is paired with short essays by leading climate scientists, and since, as Braasch acknowledges, “pictures are not science,” Earth under Fire is consistently careful to parse what is known, what is suspected, and what is predicted for the future.

It all adds up to a clearheaded, comprehensive look at the state of the science, and the planet. Braasch has also been on the job long enough to witness change himself: his pair of quietly shocking photographs of a house on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, taken five years apart, dramatize the effects of the cape’s eroding shoreline. Perhaps journalists from another decade, or another generation, will revisit these images; Earth under Fire may be not simply a book, but a benchmark.