National Geographic Photojournalist Captures Images of Critical Pollution Problems Worldwide
When U.S. photojournalist Peter Essick visited India and China for the first time, he was struck by how different life there was compared with American cities. But when he returned almost two decades later, he found the changes “staggering.” Bangalore now reminds him of the Silicon Valley, and Beijing and New Delhi are smoggier than anything he had ever encountered at home.
“Development and a high standard of living—which most people around the world view as desirable—come at a cost,” he said.
An award-winning frequent contributor to National Geographic, Essick spent 25 years traveling around the world, documenting environmental threats portrayed in his book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World.
In this slideshow of photographs hand-picked for Environmental Health News, Essick portrays the wide variety of environmental health problems that have afflicted people and ecosystems from Ho Chi Minh City to Lake Erie.
One of his biggest challenges was to find ways to illustrate health problems that are often internal: People are exposed to a variety of pollutants and chemicals that can build up in their bodies, their food and their environment.
"Overall, I believe we are going to find out that the chemicals in products that we all use every day are a factor in many of the documented increases in health problems,” he said.
Essick, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta, worked with experts and environmental groups to locate the best places to photograph lead exposure, pesticide spraying, e-waste, urban runoff and many other issues. He said he gets many of his ideas from Environmental Health News’s daily roundups of environmental news from around the world.
“The problem of lead poisoning is one environmental health problem that I believe is much larger than most people realize. It is also tragic because it most affects children,” he said.
Of all the places he’s traveled on all seven continents, Essick is most concerned about the health of people exposed to severe air and water pollution in China and India.
“I have returned to both countries recently and the changes are staggering. It seems that it is unchecked, rapid economic development that causes the most harm to the environment,” he said.
He first traveled to India in the mid 1990s, then returned recently to photograph an e-waste recycler for a National Geographic article, High Tech Trash.
“My first trip to India I went to rural area in Punjab where they play a lot of field hockey. Maybe it was because I was living in Brooklyn at the time, but the trip felt like an escape from the rat race. I really liked the villages, the people and the food," he said.
“On the trip 20 years later I still liked the people and the food, but I felt that the pace of life had changed to almost completely the opposite from what I had fondly remembered. The smog in New Delhi was terrible and Bangalore was much like visiting a large American city. The pace of life was fast and everything was very expensive. I see why Bangalore is compared to Silicon Valley.”
Essick recently traveled to China for National Geographic's Fertilized World, published last year. During his first trip there, in 2000, he shot photos for a piece on freshwater threats.
“When I went back it seemed that there was much more water and air pollution. Even in rural areas there was lots of construction going on. In the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai there were fewer Chinese riding bicycles, and many more American companies and western amenities available,” he said.
The pace of economic and environmental change in China is unprecedented; it recently surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and could outgrow the United States by 2028. Its pollution reminds Essick of images he’s seen of U.S. steel mills and smelters, which arose during the Industrial Age of the mid-1800s.
“Why would anyone want to live in a city where you have to wear a mask to go outside and you can't drink the water? It is hard for me to fathom, but the USA also went through a period of development where you grow fast and clean up later,” Essick said.
“I have seen the photos of the steel mills in Pittsburgh a hundred years ago, and I'm sure there was no pollution control on the stacks then. But the development going on now in China and India is unprecedented and I'm sure is having serious health effects on their citizens.”
Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH pages for more related news on this topic.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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