Your Extreme Ice Survey set up cameras in the harsh environments of Iceland and Greenland to record glacier retreat – how tough was it?

In hindsight it wasn’t too bad but if you had lived in my brain for those first six months of 2007, it was miserable. There was so much stress as I’d made commitments to myself and the donors that I’d do certain projects in a certain timetable. It quickly became clear the electronics [of the cameras] were more difficult than I’d imagined. It took a lot of jiggering around to figure it all out. [Balog had his fourth knee operation during the shooting of Chasing Ice to keep him mobile in the field.]

You’re a climate change activist now, but were initially a sceptic – why so?

I thought the whole thing was a based on computer models which are only as good as the information you put into them. I’m a bit of a luddite – I don’t like the digital age. And it just wasn’t in my frame of reference that people could change the fundamental make-up of our world – I thought the world had been here for hundreds of thousands of years, it’s big and we are small, we can make a few animals extinct but its basic operating system will remain without alteration. But that was 20 years ago and I was wrong – yet that false notion is leading us all over a cliff right now. 

Why are we so opposed to the truth?

There’s a vast amount of money at stake – it’s  no secret the industry that sells oil, coal and gas has an enormous interest in keeping the status quo as is. They’re doing just fine – their interest is not in preserving the future of the world. 

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Why don’t we accept what’s happening?

I don’t think that is the case. US poll numbers show Americans believe in climate change – but a rabid fanatical minority has an outsized voice because they have the money. 

Does it make you angry?

Absolutely. Just last night I was watching an [anti-climate change] PBS show and it made me incredibly angry. It’s so greedy and selfish and inexcusable those financial interests say, ‘Wedon’t care, it doesn’t matter to us.’ The deniers have painted the evidence as coming from esoteric out-there, living-on-a-moonbeam types that we can’t trust, which is just blarney. 

What did you initially think the ‘glacier cams’ would show?

We didn’t know what we’d see – maybe some marginal changes in the receding glaciers, hoping it might be interesting by year three. So it was a shock to witness such a huge change almost right away. The degree to which you can see the 3D objects moving away still shocks me. 

Is the film a wake-up call?

I hope it is, and that it acts as another piece of evidence that rattles people’s mental cages and makes them realise this is not fictional. 

Does recent extreme weather keep the story in the spotlight?

Unquestionably it accelerates public interest in this story. Hurricane Sandy [which struck New York last October] put the knife in the gut on that! But there’s extreme weather all over the world: Syria’s had a severe drought for two-thirds of the last decade that contributed to the civil war. Australia has seen extreme events – wildfire cycles, insect infestations. 

How urgent is this issue?

When issues touch individual lives and communities it makes you realise the immediacy. We all tended to think of this as an issue about small, incremental changes – we’d see more [extreme weather] in a decade or two. But what we are all waking up to in the past couple of years is that this is happening right now. 

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Are we too disconnected from the natural environment?

We think the majority of the human population is insulated in urban environments, but it’s not, it’s in the rice paddies in Asia and South America. The ‘colluding’ countries’ populations live in urban environments, where it’s easy to forget while living in temperature-controlled buildings that these issues have real world impacts. 

Where are you taking the Extreme Ice Survey next?

We’re expanding to Patagonia and Antarctica where we already have one camera and hope to have another 12 by next year. We have 10 in Argentina and Chile, too. And then we’re off to expand other subject areas that connect with the issue of human causation [of climate change]. There will almost certainly be another film that carries on the story, maybe starting with ice and then zooming forward into other subjects. 

Chasing Ice is out on DVD on June 10 through Dogwoof


Photos: 2005 Extreme Ice Survey/ Svavar Jónatansson