How photography and storytelling can turn apathy into climate action
Cristina Mittermeier is a marine biologist and activist who pioneered the field of conservation photography. In 2014, she co-founded SeaLegacy, a network of storytellers who fuel a community focused on restoring the ocean's health. In 2020, Mittermeier announced Only One, which uses the power of media to inspire individuals to take action to rebuild ocean life, and this year she is aligning with Rolex's Perpetual Planet initiative on collaborative efforts to preserve the natural world. Call to Earth is a CNN initiative in partnership with Rolex. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author.
I've spent most of my career as a storyteller, using stunning visual imagery and compelling personal stories to move people. Moving people is exactly what's needed to save our planet. We cannot afford to stand still any longer, let alone go backwards.
Too often, the very real threat of climate change can feel either distant or overwhelming -- robbing the allies we need of their sense of urgency and their drive to take action. But I've seen how storytelling can turn apathy into action. Building connection through storytelling is the key to unlocking critical climate action in this decade.
In 2017, I published a photograph of an emaciated polar bear on a barren arctic tundra using it as an entry point into a conversation about climate change. Millions of people saw this image and the resulting global dialogue provided unprecedented insight into the work still necessary to create a large enough movement to activate solutions.
Capturing even a small portion of that polar bear's story was enough to spark the global conversation I hoped for, but we need more than one catalytic moment if we're going to help fuel real collective action to save our planet.
Last year, I worked with partners to found the Only One Collective, an organization that leverages incredible visual storytelling to build a massive base of support for ocean conservation and climate action. We work with the local leaders, scientists, and innovators who are developing and implementing critical solutions, and make sure that they get the audience they deserve, while mobilizing that audience to take action.
I have met with leaders from all over the world working on the frontlines of change, and their enthusiasm and commitment is infectious. I had the chance to learn from the group of young people on the South Pacific island of Mo'orea who call themselves the Coral Gardeners and who have taken on the massive job of restoring their island's reef.
I spent time with indigenous communities in Central America fighting the overwhelming volume of ocean plastic washing up onto the shores of their ancestral homes. These are the people who are dealing with acute climate issues every day and are developing the types of solutions that the world needs. These are the people we all need to be listening to.
We know the broad strokes of what needs to happen if we're going to save our planet. We need to reduce carbon emissions to keep global warming within 1.5°C, and we need to do more to conserve the species and habitats that keep our planet healthy — protecting at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
The good news is that ocean-based solutions can help drive more than 20% of the reductions we need in emissions. Mangrove forests are just one example of how marine life can act as highly efficient "carbon sponges" — storing as much as 10 times more carbon per acre than a rainforest. Similarly impressive numbers apply to seagrass beds and other forms of marine vegetation. Marine animals like whale and shark populations are also impressive carbon sinks, with incredible climate potential that we're only just beginning to understand.
What's going to save our climate is for more people to recognize that the ocean isn't just a victim of climate change, but our path forward.
We have the potential to see real impact in our lifetimes. By 2030, we can revive ocean ecosystems to absorb nearly 4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year — that's equivalent to taking 2 billion cars off the road for a year. But these efforts have been chronically underfunded. We need to advance investment in blue carbon projects like seagrass, seaweed, and mangrove forests, and accelerate adoption of ocean-based renewable energy projects.
The feasibility of other nature-based solutions, like seaweed reforestation and plastic-eating bacteria is still being evaluated, but significant potential is out there and ready for more support and experimentation.
Bringing attention to the issue
It's my hope that by bringing new energy and attention to this issue, to the stakes and to the high-impact solutions that frontline communities and local leaders are already testing, we'll be able to make substantial gains in the next decade. Photography and storytelling have a key role to play in driving the funding and advocacy we need, and I'm grateful to be able to play a role in supporting these critical opportunities.
The task is not an easy one, and photographing it is almost as challenging. Capturing an image powerful enough that instantly portrays the urgency at hand is like trying to photograph a slow-moving tsunami. Imperceptibly at first, our shores are altered and the temperature rises just a few degrees more in the ocean. Then suddenly, hurricanes become the norm, fires rage out of control, and living seascapes turn into ghostly white graveyards.
We see these images almost every day now but we are not making the connections necessary. It's time we realize that we no longer have the luxury of sitting around and debating the "what ifs" of this global crisis.
The next chapter of life on Earth will be defined by the actions we take now and to realize what's possible, the ocean must be at the top of our list of solutions.