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”What Covid should really teach us is that we are vulnerable, we are a part of nature not apart from it, and that we need to work with not against nature…”

April 14, 2020

Ashley Cooper is an ace photographer and a unique explorer, based in the U.K. He evidences #Climate Change through his brilliant work. When I last interviewed him, I had not seen his book www.imagesfromawarmingplanet.net, a classic in its own right. Having gone through his phenomenal creations again and again – which stand out both in terms of the depth and the sweep, I had to speak to him again. There could not have been a more compelling backdrop than the #pandemic that threatens the existence of us all.

Praveen Gupta: You started your book project in 2004, literally travelled across the world and published it in 2018. How do you reckon could the start and finish be any different if you were to commence this project now?

Ashley Cooper: It would be hugely different, firstly the changes I was witnessing in the Arctic 16 years ago would be hugely magnified now. A shocking change in a short period of time. Glaciers will have receded massively, and permafrost melt will have accelerated hugely. The incidence of wildfires has increased on a massive scale, so much so, that now an area larger than the size of India is burnt every year, one of the many feedback loops of climate change. Visiting places like Tuvalu to document sea level rise, would see the seas rising to higher levels now, than when I visited in 2007. Everywhere you look climate change is accelerating.

On a separate note, it would be economically impossible to set off to undertake this venture again without a wealthy backer. The 14 years it took to document climate change on every continent cost me around £300,000 not including my time. this was all funded from sales of the images into newspapers, magazines and books, at a time when they paid an ok rate for imagery. That rate has collapsed in recent years, meaning it would be financially impossible to set off today to try to undertake the same mission.

PG: Were there any symptoms you noticed that told you loud and clear – that our planet was falling sick?

AC: Yes, they were all around and obvious if people would educate themselves on the issues and open their eyes to see. With every passing year, the weather extremes are becoming more frequent and more extreme. Trees in Europe are dying of diseases that were not prevalent only a few years ago, particularly Larch and Ash trees. Parts of the Amazon rainforest are drying up and the trees are less healthy. The oceans are warming rapidly and filling even morerapidly with plastic. The bleaching events on the Australian barrier reef have killed off over half the reef, all these things scream loud and clear to us that the planets health is ailing. I am a keen birdwatcher, and I have noticed in my lifetime, once common species almost disappear. Many birds especially farmland birds, that were common in the 1960s and 70s have declined by up to 90% We just need to notice the changes that are around us. Each generation can only know what they experience, for younger generations, a landscape depleted of nature is for them the norm.

They were all around and obvious if people would educate themselves on the issues and open their eyes to see... Each generation can only know what they experience, for younger generations, a landscape depleted of nature is for them the norm.

PG: Do you see any inter-connection between Covid-19, Climate Change and pollution? Does the sweep and speed of the spread surprise you?

AC: I am not surprised by the speed of spread of Covid-19. We live in a world where a disease can be transported to every country on the planet via air travel in a single day. This interconnectedness is a luxury that leaves us vulnerable to new pathogens. The very activities that are accelerating climate change are also ones that make disease transmission from nonhuman to human ever more likely. Forests, the carbon sink of the planet is being chopped down at an alarming rate. Species in these inaccessible places have been harbouring diseases for millennia. As more forests are chopped down, people access the animals that live there for bushmeat, making it hugely more likely that diseases can jump species.

Bankers, asset managers and insurers of the world wake up before it is too late.

Pollution is a massive global problem and linked to the devastation that Corona is wreaking. Toxic pollution from burning fossil fuels, leads to lung disease, heart disease and cancer. All these weaken people and make them far more vulnerable to the virus. Air pollution has been linked to asthma for years, but more recently it has also been linked to dementia. Air pollution in the UK could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia with people exposed to dirty air 40% more likely to develop the disease.

Pollution is a massive global problem and linked to the devastation that Corona is wreaking.

PG: Malaria, Mental illness, Cancer – you allude to these in context of some of the locations that you were shooting in. Bill McKibben talks about Dengue in parts of Europe and who knows what lies in store with the melting permafrost?

AC: As temperatures rise, disease carrying vectors are changing their distribution patterns, ensuring that the diseases they carry impact on new human hosts. Malaria is an obvious example, the mosquito that carries it is moving rapidly into areas that were once too cool for it to survive and would have been considered safe from the disease. The same is the case for many other diseases. Rates of mental illness are rising steeply in the developed world. Eco anxiety is now recognised to impact the lives of many people, with folk becoming anxious at the uncertain future that climate change promises every citizen of the planet. Many cancers are linked to toxic fossil fuel emissions, these and cardiopulmonary diseases caused by fossil fuels are costing health services around the planet $billions every year.

Eco anxiety is now recognised to impact the lives of many people, with folk becoming anxious at the uncertain future that climate change promises every citizen of the planet.

In addition, millions have their lives cut short on average by 7-8 years when they live in highly polluted environments. Ironically, they now reckon that the numbers of people killed by corona in China, is less than the number of people who would have died from the levels of air pollution present, before the lockdown lead to a huge improvement in levels. Permafrost melting may well release long locked away pathogens, but far more worrying is the fact that it has the potential to release giga tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas some 32 times more potent than CO2.

PG: Your portrayal of the fragility of Shishmaref (the island between Siberia and Alaska) and the existential crisis faced by the Inuit community is very poignant. Was that also meant to be a metaphor for the rest of the world?

AC: The Inuits of Shishmaref are a great example of something I have seen the world over. That those least responsible for climate change are most impacted by it. Living a largely hunter gatherer lifestyle, their carbon footprint was tiny compared to an average North American. Their houses were being washed into the sea, as the sea ice that used to protect their island from winter storms and subsequent coastal erosion was not forming, if at all, until 3 months later than it used to.

The Inuits of Shishmaref are a great example of something I have seen the world over. That those least responsible for climate change are most impacted by it.

When the book went to print the residents of Shishmaref took the unprecedented vote to abandon the island that had been their home for hundreds of years. In this respect, they are the canary in the coal mine, a metaphor for what millions of us can expect from ever rising sea levels, that will create unprecedented levels of global refugees.

The Muni Seva Ashram in Goraj, near Vadodara, India, is a tranquil haven of humanitarian care. The Ashram is hugely sustainable, it will soon be completely carbon neutral. Its first solar panels were installed in 1984, long before climate change was on anyone’s agenda.

PG: During your travels did you notice anything unique about Asia? Given its teeming population, fossil fuel intensive industrialisation, biodiversity and vulnerable geography?

AC: Many areas of Asia are very vulnerable to climate change. Typhoons are becoming more frequent and more aggressive, causing ever more destruction. Devastating flooding affects some parts, whilst others are drying up and turning to desert. Many low-lying areas, especially Bangladesh are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise.  India and China, both with rapidly growing populations and rapidly growing economies, are now significant emitters of greenhouse gas. Much of this is from coal fired power stations being built to meet the increasing demands for energy. It is vitally important that these countries be allowed to develop, but not making the mistakes that were made in the western world.

India and China, both with rapidly growing populations and rapidly growing economies, are now significant emitters of greenhouse gas... It is vitally important that these countries be allowed to develop, but not making the mistakes that were made in the western world.

PG: Was the level and pace of adoption of renewable energy, in Asia, satisfactory?

AC: China has spent $billions on renewable energy, mainly solar and wind power and India is starting to catch up, both these countries have huge potential for renewable energy generation, and both countries have masses to gain by reducing the hideous levels of air pollution that blight millions of lives. For this investment to continue, especially in India, power utilities need to pay the proper price of burning coal, i.e. all the pollution and climate change costs, that will rapidly make renewables a far more attractive and cheaper option.

PG: Any signs of hope that you see in these distressing times? Do you believe post Covid-19 the world will change for good – despite some of the countries using this as a cover for promoting questionable fossil fuel projects on the sly?

Serenity in Corona times: Colours reflected over the weir at the outlet of Grasmere, Lake District, UK .

AC: We must remain optimistic. We have seen levels of emissions and pollution plummet during the Covid outbreak. This will bring relief to millions. Everyone has enjoyed the quiet and peacefulness of lack of vehicles on the road and cleaner air to breath. We need to have a conversation about how we can keep some of these benefits in a post Covid world. We have proved that it is very easy to reduce emissions. To fight Covid we need to tackle the climate emergency with the same zeal, as it poses a far greater threat to humanity than the Covid pandemic.

We have proved that it is very easy to reduce emissions. To fight Covid we need to tackle the climate emergency with the same zeal, as it poses a far greater threat to humanity than the Covid pandemic.

I hope the pandemic will allow people to see that life can be lived at a slower pace, with emphasis placed on nature and wellbeing. It is high time we stopped valuing how big our car is, and measure our wealth in the love of our family and friends, in the access to nature which sustain and supports us, and it to treading far more lightly upon the planet so that future generations stand a chance of living a fulfilling life. What Covid should really teach us is that we are vulnerable, we are a part of nature not apart from it, and that we need to work with not against nature. If we learn these lessons and implement them, then we stand a chance of avoiding the worst excesses of climate breakdown. If we don’t learn them, we do not deserve to have a future on this planet.

PG: May you continue to delight and educate the world with your creations.

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2 Comments
  1. Walter Murphy permalink

    An eye opening interview, Praveen. The signs are all around us, yet we seem to be blind to the damage we have wrought and continue to bring upon our planet. Perhaps one of the positives that will come out of the COVID-19 pandemic will be an awakening that nature is not for humans to reshape and abuse for their own needs. It is imperative that we live in harmony with our environment and protect it at all costs. To continue as we have is not sustainable. Hopefully, leadership will recognize this and not return to the status quo. Our failure to respond to COVID-19 is a warning that if we do not change our ways and fail to address the climate crisis the planet will not be kind and our human existence truly will be in peril.

  2. Thanks, Walter.
    Hoping and praying that this particular event will trigger speedy and radical reforms.
    Regards,
    Praveen

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