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TRAVERSES #2 / L'éco-documentaire
à l'épreuve de l'anthropocène

A Call to Arms:

Documentary and Climate change

Angi Buettner [*]

Chasing Ice © James Balog.jpeg

Chasing Ice, James Balog, 2012 © Submarine Entertainement - National Geographic

       “Now that you know, what are you going to do about it?”. Those are the final words of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival closing film, Ice and Sky (2015). Cannes gave this prominent spot in its schedule to Luc Jacquet's environmental documentary, after the issue of climate change also featured largely throughout the festival. Jacquet positions his film about climatologist Claude Lorios (one of the scientists who proved the contribution of greenhouse gases to climate change) as a call to arms to the environmental movement, and as a “head on challenge to climate change deniers”. In this paper, I want to discuss this responsibility of the filmmaker taken on by Jacquet here, the potential role of documentary as political cinema, and the potential role of environmental documentary in climate change activism.


     Arguably, there has been an evolution in the ways climate change documentary is approaching the issue. An Inconvenient Truth (2006), for example, was “truthtelling” of facts and figures - and has been called a “prototype of activist filmmaking” - and it depicted climate change as the eventual cause of future calamity. Now climate change is usually depicted as a reality already affecting everyday life, as in Jeff Nichol’s Take Shelter (2011). As a reviewer put it: “On the heels of documentaries that hoped to raise awareness by laying out the facts about climate change have come new ones showing the consequences of our behavior through spectacular images of an increasingly inhospitable environment.” [1] The question I want to raise from this is whether climate change documentary has gone from facts to spectacle, and whether this has happened in, or even because of, the ongoing attempt of “activist filmmaking”. My example is the documentary Chasing Ice (2012). Firstly, because James Balog states explicitly in both film and interviews that he wants to contribute to changing people’s mindset and behavior about climate change. Secondly, because the documentary’s reason for being is visual, and its spectacular images are clearly produced to inspire awe. My argument builds on two research questions. What role can documentary, as a form of popular culture, play in the discursive production of climate change? And, how can we evaluate the role of spectacular images in this discursive production? I will argue that in order to be able to answer these questions, that is in order to evaluate the potential effectiveness of documentary in the communication, debate, or even activism on climate change, media and cultural studies need to develop research questions and methodologies that take into account the genres, logics and imperatives of popular culture.

        Chasing Ice (2012) has been successful in film festival circles for providing visual proof that the earth is warming. “Watch climate change happen right before your eyes”, promises the trailer. Director Jeff Orlowski follows nature photographer James Balog’s quest to capture footage of melting glaciers. Balog spent years taking pictures of the world’s glaciers as part of the Extreme Ice Survey, which he founded in 2007. The documentary’s official trailer [2] is a useful text for problematizing the treatment of climate change in popular culture. The documentary’s key message revolves around the crucial question of visible evidence for climate change, and yet in the official trailer there is no reference to the issue(s) of climate change as such. The trailer’s focus is entirely on the spectacle of the images and the making of the film, with the physical dangers and technological difficulties involved in getting the images in a harsh environment. The clip is interspersed with spectacularly beautiful still photographs framed by the repeated click sound of a camera shutter. Similarly dominant features in the clip are posters of the many awards for the film interspersing the clip, together with the dramatic narrative of various voices about the making of the photos and the film. In the narration of the clip, climate change becomes a big screen phenomenon rather than a nature phenomenon changing our planet, “A Visual Feast”, “visually breathtaking”, “hauntingly beautiful”, as the film review quotes flashing across the screen testify. The value here, at least as produced in the clip, lies with the producing the record of climate change, rather than with the explaining of climate change processes.

     In a Q&A session, Balog talks about the reasons for making this film: “The science community is really interesting because they have a huge amount of knowledge. […] You go to these science meetings […] and you listen to presentations. They know a thousand times more information about amazing world-changing events than ever gets out into the public awareness. So the challenge is to be able to kind of filter it. To take all of that information, run it through some kind of funnel, and way down at the bottom of that funnel be able to turn it into something that we can make new stories and good pictures out of.” (Beggs 2012) A film reviewer adds: “Of course global warming is a difficult issue to grasp considering the largeness of its scale […]and the consequences for ignoring it. As a solution, Chasing Ice presents the evidence and the danger in a way that even the shortest of attention spans can grasp.” (Beggs 2012) Both quotes formulate, in a populist manner, what the issues at stake are, as well as the political and theoretical problematic: moving scientific knowledge into the public, pictures and stories that can communicate climate change accurately, and how to filter the mass of information. When considering the construction of the meaning of the documentary Chasing Ice for the public (in the trailer, in reviews, in interviews, etc.), however, it becomes clear that it is not merely about how to filter the mass of information, but rather how to then turn the filtered information into pictures and stories. It is the filtered stories and pictures we get with the cultural product that is Chasing Ice, not filtered facts.

      One of the most widely circulated clips from the documentary is one that shows the 7.4 cubic kilometers calving off the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland. The official clip on YouTube went viral as the “largest glacier calving ever filmed”. [3] On 12 December 2012, a 3:45 min version of the clip (and sourced from the Extreme Ice Survey) was posted on the Environment section of, under the heading “Chasing Ice movie reveals largest iceberg break-up ever filmed”. There is no contextualizing or reporting on this, nor on the role of the documentary in communicating climate change to the public, or on the issue of climate change as such, and not on climate science. The “news item” consists of a short description of the clip that is all about the making of the “startling images” (Carrington 2012).

       The clip is exclusively about the beauty of the calving event. The cinematography is powerful, and the images are spectacular. Carefully edited wide-pans convey the sheer mass of the glacier, and numerous zooms skillfully lead into close-ups of the break up. One such scene is from minutes 1:59–2:07: a gigantic black piece of ice is rearing out of the ocean. A speed-up of the footage gives the ice an animal shape and it looks like a whale in her death throes slowly sinking into the ocean. At 2:40 minutes the narrative begins that puts this natural spectacle into human scale, in the voice of director Jeff Orlowski: “The only way that you can really try to put it into scale with human references is if you imagine Manhattan. And all of a sudden, all of those buildings just start to rumble and quake and peel off and just fall over, and fall over and roll around. This whole massive city just breaking apart in front of your eyes. [Pause] We are just observers. Two little dots on the side of the mountain. And we’ve just watched –and recorded–the world’s largest calving event every caught on tape.”

        The text “Calving duration: 75 Min” ends the narrative and emphasizes the scale of what is happening. So here we see the kind of storytelling at work in order to make sense of this physical event. However, the comments on the official clip on YouTube are mostly about the “wow” factor of the text: “awe-inspiring”, “spectacular”, “mind-blowing”, and “magnificent” are some of the expressions used. There are a few comments asking how in the face of this evidence some can still doubt climate change, but only a few comments, of more than 8000 comments, goes to the core of this clip. A Brady Sharrett, whose avatar, incidentally, is a photo of Earthrise, says: “At least there is a silver lining to the destruction of glaciers—for your viewing pleasure”. A similar criticism about the spectacular visuals has been levelled at the entire documentary. Doris Toumarkine (2012) writes in her review of the film that there is a lack of climate science and that its important message of the melting ice is almost “melted, as spectacular visuals steal the show”. The discourses, rationales and techniques used to grab the attention of consumers is clearly in evidence in the use of the Chasing Ice clips: the object is not to educate or make the audience more literate, but to produce an immediate engagement and affective response.

        This raises the question at the heart of climate change representations in popular media: can they communicate what is happening, or can they only ever be an entertainment-providing spectacle (even if the entertainment consists of watching the disaster)? The media generally, and particularly popular media, have been criticized for replacing spaces and discourses of critical reason and political engagement with entertainment and spectacle. At the same time, however, the media—particularly the news media and, increasingly, the documentary—are central to the process of educating the public about climate change. And as we’ve seen at the beginning of this paper, climate change documentary positions itself as the provider of the knowledge and information necessary for the political thinking on the issue. Arguably however, the media as a cultural field is dominated by the logics of the market (Bourdieu 1993, 1998; Mattelart and Mattelart 1992); this is contrary to its social role as the fourth estate and public sphere space.

        The argument levelled at popular culture is that it is dominated by the spectacle, and there are many traditions that interpret the whole field of the media as the media-as-spectacle (journalism, film, and so forth). The spectacle, in those theories, works to produce affective responses in its audiences, for a variety of reasons: most obviously the maintenance of attention ensures a continuation and naturalisation of the consumption of texts and commodities by generating a strong attachment and commitment to the things of the media—coverage of a natural disaster, a political event, a celebrity scandal, or some personal tragedy that can be made to appeal to a wide demographic. As Claude Lefort (1986) has argued, what is central to the media is not the communication (of knowledge, information or socio-cultural development or issues) but the performance of communication. Lefort argues that for the media as spectacle content is largely arbitrary or even irrelevant; what the media produces is sites which arrest attention.

      What are the consequences of this on the quality of climate change representations? It is tempting to interpret what gets into the media as mere entertainment. But popular culture, as we know, has the power to shape and reflect political attitudes and how people come to understand the world. As the Simpsons phenomenon shows, people don’t necessarily distinguish between fact and fiction (Peach 2011). Similarly, the perception of texts such as Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) or Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) show that it is such popular mediations that leave an impression, and hence influence how people think and feel about an issue.

        Chasing Ice arguably also negotiates the issues only on an affective level. The impact of its focus on the hauntingly beautiful images is expressed in the reviews of and comments about the film, such as by Robert Redford: “You’ve never seen images like this before … it deserves to be seen and felt on the big screen”. The role of the affective and the question of the relationship between emotion and behavior will be a crucial area of study when it comes to analyzing texts and narratives that communicate climate change. It is central to the question of whether the relationship between popular culture and climate change can take on an informative role.

     A similarly crucial area of study will have to be how we can evaluate the power of spectacular visuals. Understanding this will have to be part of our assessing the quality and effectiveness of climate change communication. In the case of the iceberg calving clip from Chasing Ice, what is operating is the aestheticizing of the disaster. And in this case, “the news” (by merely recirculating the video) is part of the processes of how the disaster becomes something else, is turned into an aesthetic object. With this, our relation to the disaster and the event changes. From thinking about calving icebergs as one of the disastrous effects of climate change and about the consequences of melting Arctic and Antarctic ice for the planet, we watch something extremely beautiful. And it is this feeling that lingers.


      The question is how in these representations one keeps politics, if the aesthetic or the spectacle effectively disappears the politics? There is little room in the spectacle for politics or knowledge. If activists, and filmmakers, try to keep the politics and play with the spectacle at the same time, they have to be good at working the media. As an environmental activist friend put it: “You better have your wits about you, otherwise the spectacle eats you”. The analysis of the clips from Chasing Ice, together with the other examples, has shown how popular culture representations of socio-political issues and events are produced and deployed. It has also shown how those representations are tied in with and partake of the logics of commoditization and consumerism.

Capture d’écran 2021-07-09 à 14.13.46.png

Chasing Ice, James Balog, 2012 © Submarine Entertainement - National Geographic

The message of climate change: strategic narratives and media literacy

        Increasingly it is popular media that convey complex science to the public and are a primary source of climate change information (Wilson 2000; Boykoff MT 2011). So how do we do this? How do social actors work this, given the difficulties that lie with the logic of the media discussed earlier?

       The examples addressed here raise the question of whether by participating via the media, social actors ultimately end up merely producing another media spectacle. This is the key question to be worked out regarding the question of climate change in the media. Is there a way out of merely producing another media spectacle, and if so, what is this way? Many have warned against the aestheticizing of the disaster, because of the proximity of visual pleasure to the disaster. Should disastrous events and experiences be transformed into images, so as to be read with aesthetic pleasure and thus lose the actuality of the disaster and its politics? Through the action of representation, the disaster becomes something else, is turned into a cultural product for consumption. At the same time, without these representations, how can we have knowledge of these events?

      When we aestheticize the disaster, is there always a disjunction of aesthetics and politics? Are we only able to stare at and to be fascinated by the disaster, spellbound by its “sublime” pleasures? Or is there a way for aesthetics to not take us out of the domain of the political and political action? Is there a way that such representations can help us to understand the events behind disaster? At the beginning of Chasing Ice, Balog thematizes the need to show the disaster in beautiful images, because, so he says, if you show the harsh reality people will be put off and not pay attention to the issues at stake. This issue of the aestheticizing of the disaster, that Balog advocates, sets the tone for the whole documentary.


      What Balog tries to do here, is an example of what popular culture can do: I suggest that popular representations of climate change try to find modes of representation towards knowing and moral address, and thus open up spaces for critique, and, consequently, for political action. This would be a possible antidote to the disjunction of aesthetics and politics.

       Some of the popular representations of climate change show that their power can be not just in the potential to aestheticize, but also to politicise. Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) and Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), for example, have been shown to have influenced public policy circles and were part of creating public awareness of climate change (Petersen et al 2005, Boykoff and Boykoff 2007, Lowe et al. 2006). This power, however, eventuates not just through the production of these representations, but only in conjunction with the cultural work we perform in consuming and perceiving these representations.

      When it comes to understanding politics and action, Hannah Arendt (1998) made a crucial point in her book The Human Condition: human beings have inherent political capacities because they are human beings, and because they are plural; each of them is capable of new perspectives and new actions. And therefore, they will not fit into tidy, predictable models. They only would fit into that if these political capacities were crushed.

        This point about the inherent political capacities—the capacity for new actions because of a plurality of perspectives—is useful for thinking through climate change and popular culture. Popular culture is home to untidiness and unpredictability Arendt describes as crucial to change. Popular culture also is home to the imagination. And, as a common talking point in art discourses has it, when people can imagine things, they can do them; therein lies the power of fiction and the imagination. Formal climate change communication is a new master narrative of overwhelming crisis where the news just keeps getting worse. Given the scientific findings, this is necessary; change, however, can only come from hope and the belief that one can change things (Bloch 1995, Hamilton 2013). Popular culture, with its stories and imaginations, might be the space to imagine new solutions, to foster new perspectives and to propose new actions. And researching it might give us access to powerful discursive spaces, spaces where the engagement with climate change—cognitive, affective and behavioral engagement—happens.

Angi Buettner

Angi Buettner, School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.



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