We’re fishing ourselves out of existence

With COP28 fast approaching, what is the real state of our planet now? Not the sanitised version which our politicians would have us believe as an excuse for their inaction, but the reality. In the third in this series on environment, climate change and conservation, Martin Hartley looks at the current state of our planet and how climate impacts are being felt today around the world.

Climate change and how the impact is being felt

When I was in my early teens, around about 1981, long before I understood climate change and its impacts, I had a poster on my bedroom wall with an illustration of a Native American on it, along with the words “only when the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, will man realise that money cannot be eaten”.  I already understood even at that early age that the Native American relationship with nature and earth was a lot more closely connected than my own. There was something in these words that I found deeply disturbing, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine the last fish being eaten.

Back then global warming was something I was not aware of, even though the Arctic started warming in the early 1830’s, the phrase “climate change’ was not something I had ever heard. That was only 40 years or so ago, and in that short space of time, now hardly a day goes by without news about ‘climate change’ appearing in the headlines. The current climate news is the accelerated and ‘inevitable’ melt of the Western Antarctic Ice sheet, causing global sea levels to rise by 5 metres, which will cause New York and Shanghai significant problems. Politician and journalist Sherry Rehman, a member of the senate of Pakistan, said last month “Global warming is the existential crisis facing the world, and Pakistan is ground zero – yet we have contributed less than 1% to emissions.”  

The invisible problem

The driving force behind climate change related issues as we all know is CO2 which is an invisible problem. According to NASA, humans have raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 50% since the beginning of the 18th century. Photographing something invisible is not easy, so photographers around the world have been busy documenting the dramatic impacts of higher levels of CO2 on our landscapes and ways of life around the world. Cristina Mittermeier, co – founder of the nonprofit organisation Sea Legacy, which uses film and photography to raise awareness of climate issues and help protect the planet, said  “Photography is one of the most effective and powerful tools we have to tell complex stories, like the story of climate change,” 

I type into Google ‘Climate change photographs’ and found 764,000,000  results. Most of the images at the top of the pile were of polar bears. The Polar Bear has become a global symbol of climate change. One of Christina’s images of a starving Polar bear went viral and was shared on social media and news organisations worldwide provoking a whole range of responses for and against climate empathy and denial. But while the polar regions have felt the biggest impacts of the warming planet and looming crisis, the effects are being  felt  globally . We have seen drone images of dead Giraffes, caused by lack of rainfall, and kangaroos silhouetted against burning forest fires in Australia, Greenland glaciers gushing out trillions of tons of meltwater and, of course, factories everywhere spewing out all manner of dirty toxins into our atmosphere. These single images are powerful symbols that show us the effects of our  fossil fuel habits. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by the bombardment of distressing images to a point of suffering from ‘empathy burnout’ and unable to respond positively. 

The New South Wales ‘Mega’ fire, which measures 1.5 million acres, burns on the outskirts of the small town of Tumbarumba in the Snowy Mountains. The 2019–20 Australian bushfire season, was the most devastating fire season on record, destroying an estimated 46 million acres of land, over 5,900 buildings and killing 34 people. It is estimated that up to 1 billion birds, mammals and reptiles, many unique to Australia, will have been affected or killed driving some endangered species to extinction. (Photo © Kiran Ridley)

On the other side of the photographic story-telling coin, it is equally possible to make terrible things look beautiful. I think Edward Burtynsky is ‘guilty’ of this, so much so he has created beautiful art in some of his Anthropocene images. And Sim Chi Yin and her shifting sands images, about the world ‘running out of sand’

Photography and its impact

What we need is an actionable, response in the viewer. Photography is a powerful visual medium that can be used to educate, raise awareness and inspire action, so photographers have a huge responsibility when presenting images that represent issues facing the global public. I think, as photographers, we need to combine images of tragedy with positive images of beauty if solutions and action to remind us that this human made environmental emergency is also something we can reverse and work collective as a global collaboration. A damaged world can recover its beauty if we take collective global action.

One of my most meaningful encounters while photographing a climate story came on the Niger River in Mali. Rainfall has fallen to all time lows in Mali, the land has become too dry to grow anything meaningful, or even raise herds of cattle. A few goats can survive but not a lot of anything bigger. So the farmers have become fishermen, they have so little money they have to rent fishing nets.

Each year the fishing nets have smaller and smaller holes to catch the ever-decreasing size of fish. Observing the fishermen haul out their nets after repeated casts with so few and such tiny fish, it was difficult to watch. One village elder I spoke with, a former farmer who had become a fisherman, said “We are fishing ourselves out of existence , we know this, but we don’t have a choice”. How as a photographer can you tell this story in a single image? You can’t. The lack of rainfall that has forced the farmers off the land and into the river is directly linked to the diminishing sea ice of the Arctic Ocean which drives all the weather in the Northern hemisphere. That is why we need collections of images to communicate the fuller, more complex story of reality and hope.  

Waking up to reality

Earthrise – from the NASA archive

The genre of climate, or environmental photography was started by an image taken by astronaut William Anders, his image ‘Earthrise’ taken on Christmas eve in 1968 was described by the famous American adventure and landscape photographer Galen Rowell as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” The photograph Earthrise is  possibly the best example of the power of a single photograph.

It  has become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century and is often credited for propelling the environmental movement that led to the first Earth Day in 1970.  Anders later observed of the photograph’s impact. “This is the only home we have.”.. It is the only home we have .. Perhaps now is the time we need another ‘Earthrise’ image’ to kick start a generation of repairing our home instead of destroying it .

The climate crisis magnifies inequality, poverty, displacement and may increase the likelihood of conflict. 90% of diseases resulting from the climate crisis are likely to affect children under the age of five. By 2050, a further 24 million children are projected to be undernourished as a result of the climate crisis. The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2016 that the global cost of adapting to these climate impacts is expected to grow to $140-300 billion per year by 2030 and $280-500 billion per year by 2050 . 

Climate change affects all of us regardless of age, gender, religion, race or nationality

The historic £7M “Loss and Damage” fund – the only real achievement of the COP27 looks like a drop in the proverbial ocean albeit a rising one. With COP28 taking place imminently, we look again to the same group of politicians who have spectacularly failed to take the climate change problem seriously enough with a depressing level of self-interest, national interest. Extreme events like droughts, fires, heatwaves and storms don’t respect national borders, and are likely to cause long-term economic harm because of their impact on health, savings and labour productivity. 

For Andaman islanders like this woman, her island, her home will no longer exist. It will be below sea level

The rate of change gets ever faster

The journal Environmental Research Letters, recently published a piece written by an international team of scientists that the economic damage could be six times higher by the end of this century than previously estimated. Currently, most models focus on short-term damage, assuming that climate change has no lasting effect on economic growth, despite growing evidence to the contrary. One insurance giant in the US warned that climate related distress could cut world economy by $23 Trillion. Given these kinds of figures it becomes increasingly frustrating that that these huge sums of money is not being re-invested to prevent all of these human related and preventable disasters happening. 

The last fish? Catches are dwindling and the fish caught get smaller and smaller. But what is the alternative for these people now that farming and livestock are unsustainable?

Look to the seas and rivers

When we have eaten the last fish no amount of money is going to bring them back. If the fish go, everything goes. Marine life is fundamental to maintaining balance within earth’s ecosystems but it is also essential in maintaining the atmosphere which sustains us. Without Whales, for example, there would be no phytoplankton and without phytoplankton there would be a staggering 50% less oxygen in our atmosphere (trees only produce 28% of the oxygen we breathe). And if we lose the sea ice we lose the fight against climate change, is that a world any of us want to live in? Is it a world the human race can even survive in?

For previous articles in this series see ‘Our planet – earth in focus’ and Climate Photography Today. The next in this series will focus on Forests, jungles and savanna. You can also listen to Martin’s podcast with Newton & Coe

All images © Martin Hartley, except Australian bush fires © Kiran Ridley


By Martin Hartley

Martin Hartley is an adventure and expedition photographer. His work has taken him around the world and to some of the harshest, most extreme and most fragile environments.