The Snow Report
Balog has demonstrated the same level of determination off-camera. For five years, he’s been continuously networking, lecturing, fundraising, and, of course, taking photographs and video. “I relate to him because he has risked it all,” says Will Steger, the polar adventurer and climate-change activist. “He has figured out a way to capture what no one else has been able to capture. And he has to show it to other people.”
Meanwhile, the mechanical robots, as Balog likes to call them, keep clicking away. Most of the original EIS cameras are still in the field, and over the past few years, in collaboration with various scientists and universities, the group has installed new ones on Devon Island, which sits high in the Arctic between Baffin and Ellesmere islands, and another pair on Greenland’s Petermann Glacier. Now Balog is thinking about taking EIS to the Andes. “For better or worse, there’s no end,” he says. “The cameras have to keep going indefinitely because of the power of the story.”
LAST JULY, I MET up with Balog once more, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an event that one political writer dubbed “D.C.’s summer camp.” There are plenty of A-listers on the roster—including former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers—but the atmosphere is more cushy than crackling. Colorado was in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave, and bowls of fresh fruit and jars of cucumber water were everywhere.
Balog has spoken at dozens of such conferences over the years, and his duties here are comparatively light: he’ll give a short talk and field a few questions after a screening of Chasing Ice. The audience gives Balog a standing ovation when he takes the stage—not as long as the deafening, minute-long one the film received at an earlier festival in Italy, but you can tell that people are moved by what they’ve just seen. They ask all kinds of questions but mostly just want to know what they can do.
There are no easy answers, of course. Onstage, Balog’s tone was positive, but his responses were about what you’d expect—check the renewable-energy box on your utility bill, drive a hybrid. Earlier he acknowledged that it would probably take a catastrophic event to move the behavioral needle. This was a few months before Hurricane Sandy hit, and only time will tell if that storm proved to be a turning point.
After the film, when the adrenaline surge of public speaking had worn off, Balog admitted that we might have already gone too far. “Maybe all we’re doing is preserving a moment in time for the historical record—here’s how it was, sorry we messed it up.”
Before Chasing Ice, Balog’s non-profit group, Earth Vision Trust, was struggling. Balog was exhausted and tired of fundraising, his least favorite part of the job. Then Sundance happened. The spike in donations allowed him to hire an executive director and a fundraising specialist. Although the group’s annual operating budget is still only $250,000, it’s growing, and EVT recently began creating curricula for teachers that can be accessed free online.
Balog was also excited about revisiting some of the themes of his earlier work. “Implicit in the tree project is the deforestation of North America,” Balog says, “but I didn’t hit that drum very hard.” Later I asked him if he was surprised by how politically taboo the topic of climate change had become. “I don’t give a shit what the political and financial guys are saying,” he says, slowing down his cadence and tapping fingers on the table in time with each word. “This is what’s true. And we’re going to speak the truth.”