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The Human Element: The spectacular new doco bearing witness to climate change

The Human Element, Tuesday.

If the science of climate change leaves you cold, the work of photographer James Balog is more elemental.

Reports from the International Panel on Climate Change are not easy reading, either in the sense of the accessibility of their prose or the palatability of their conclusions.

The Human Element, which begins streaming on TVNZ OnDemand this week, offers a different way in to the emergency of global climate change. It’s a documentary that follows environmental photographer James Balog, whose work for the past four decades has focused on the relationship between humans and their natural environment.

Matthew Testa’s film opens with Balog waist-deep in the floodwaters that resulted in Florida from Hurricane Irma. He’s on his way to photograph a mother and daughter whose home has been devastated by the floods. The scene closes with his monochrome photograph of the pair embracing amid the wreckage. It’s not only more urgent than an IPCC text, but deeper and more sad than the moving pictures we’ve just seen.

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“For thousands of years,” the photographer intones, “many people believed that nature was made up of four elemental forces – earth, air, water and fire. But I’ve come to realise there’s a fifth element – people. We’re a force of nature, too. People are changing the other elements. At the same time, the elements are changing us and what I want to do is bring this story to life.”

We’re taken to towns on the US Eastern seaboard where fish swim in the streets and families who have harvested crabs for generations will soon have nowhere to moor their boats. Then to cities where emissions have made asthma endemic, and wildernesses in Colorado devastated by deadly “megafires” that were once extremely rare but are now commonplace. And, finally, the coal country where Balog’s grandfather laboured so that his children might have a better life. On one level, it’s a US conceit, but perhaps focusing on real and urgent change in the richest country on Earth sends its own message.

The film is also, not least in its fiery horrors, spectacular to look at. If 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, the film that first sounded the alarm, was a Powerpoint presentation, with all its graphs and trend lines, the following decade’s call to action is more a matter of turning the lens on what’s actually happening around us. Or, as Balog himself puts it, of simply bearing witness.

The Human Element launches on TVNZ OnDemand on Thursday, November 1. It can also be viewed for free at Pure Advantage.

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.