In our visual culture, climate change remains oddly invisible. Few people can glimpse melting glaciers or perceive that seas levels are rising. We may feel hotter, but we cannot see carbon rising through the atmosphere as we drive our cars around. This is one reason for our lethargic response to the problem: out of sight, out of mind.
“Climate Change: Picturing the Science,” a new book by Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe, aims to alter that by providing a rich photographic record of a warming world. Some photos tell a self-evident record of geophysical change, like a shot of Lake Powell, on the Arizona-Utah border, where warming-induced drought has produced a dramatically lowered water line — a yellow “bathtub ring” of once-submerged rock.
In other cases, knowing a little about our climate can affect the way we interpret these photos — lending a more menacing air to seemingly benign images. An aerial shot of a massive Dutch sea barrier, with the city of Rotterdam lying just beyond, looks like an ode to Sisyphean futility. A gorgeous photo of sunlight striking a glacier in Peru’s Quelccaya ice cap symbolically sums up a larger question: How long will such formations resist the effects of the sun?
To provide some of that knowledge, Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, wrote a few accompanying essays and solicited several others from colleagues. The book emphasizes the complexity of the climate change problem, noting the wide range of greenhouse gases that engender warming (not just carbon dioxide but also methane, aerosols and more), the many ways we release them, and the varied regional effects they produce. Climate change is not a one-dimensional problem with a simple solution, so we need to grasp the totality of the global climate system.
Salon spoke to Schmidt about our inability to grasp global warming, the nature of climate science, and our prospects for a cooler future.