Displaying the effects of increasingly frequent environmental disasters and engaging religious communities is necessary to motivate action against climate change, George Steinmetz, a freelance photographer, and Evan Berry, an American University associate professor of philosophy and religion, said at a Jan. 23 event.
Using aerial photography that can show the environment on large scales is one of the best ways to motivate the average citizen to combat climate change because it displays climate change’s effects on humans, Steinmetz said, speaking of his work.
“What I was trying to do was show the scope of the problem,” Steinmetz said. “I try to take pictures where there’s something human that you can relate to.”
The event, titled “Religion and Climate Change: A Visual and Scholarly Representation” was hosted by the Pulitzer Center in collaboration with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, which studies the intersection of religion, ethics, and public life.
Religious elements are woefully absent from popular discourse on climate change, according to Director of the Berkeley Center Shaun Casey.
“Many of today’s international crises have a strong religious component, yet media coverage often omits or oversimplifies these complexities and nuances,” Casey said. “A deep examination of faith and values is central and critical to addressing today’s global challenges.”
Journalism and religion both use human-centered narratives that can catalyze social organization, according to Berry, who studies issues of community action.
“One thing that journalism and religion have in common is that they’re both ways of telling stories about how different groups of people experience what’s going on places,” Berry said.
Berry has previously examined religion’s influence on both climate change and environmentalism in his 2015 book, “Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of Environmentalism.”
Religion is an integral to climate change’s impacts, Berry wrote, alongside co-authors Willis Jenkins and Luke Beck Kreider in a July 2018 article “Religion and Climate Change.”
“Understanding the cultural dimensions of climate change requires understanding its religious aspects,” Berry wrote with his co-authors.
Steinmetz, who often captures aerial images and landscapes, was assigned by The New York Times Magazine to find the best visual representations of climate change on each continent — a search that led him to photograph Iceland, China and Western Africa. Steinmetz also followed several American natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and three recent California wildfires.
His photographs were originally used for an article in The Times Magazine in Aug. 2018 titled “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”
Steinmetz said using moving and still pictures to supplement the article was both effective and powerful.
The Pulitzer Center has designed a model curriculum around the “Losing Earth” article that can be used in classroom ranging from elementary school to college. The project teaches students journalism skills through stories on climate change.
Georgetown University and the Berkley Center are members of the Pulitzer Center’s campus consortium network, which aims to engage students and faculty in conversations about important issues and how they are covered in the media.
Visual mediums of journalism such as photography and documentary film have great potential to communicate the impacts of climate change, Berry and panel members said.
“I’m a big believer in documentary film. I think it’s a really important and powerful tool, both long and short documentaries,” Berry said. “They can tell stories in a way that isn’t merely just images, but also helps people sympathize with characters who come to life.”
Both Berry and Steinmetz agreed citizens of developed countries like the United States have the responsibility to help others combat climate change.
“There’s a set of conversations about what we ought to do in response to climate change that have to do with lowering our emissions and there’s also a set of conversations about what we ought to do that are related to helping communities adapt to rapidly changing environments,” Berry said.
The United Nations has identified the growing problem of climate refugees — migrants who have been forced to leave their homelands due to issues related to changing climate patterns, such as flooding, and are disproportionately poor — as few systems to relocate individuals displaced by environmental disasters yet function at high capacities.
At the commencement ceremony for the School of Foreign Service’s class of 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said climate change would be one of the most pressing issues younger generations will need to tackle.
Steinmetz said that while he thinks the photographs are compelling, he is unsure if they can motivate individuals to act.
“I think people will look at these pictures and think, ‘Wow, that’s a really big problem,’ but, to be honest, I don’t know if that makes them think, ‘What can I personally do?’” Steinmetz said. “But I think it comes down to what we can do individually.”