On April 5, 2009, Denmark got a new Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. He was the third Danish Prime Minister in a row to bear that surname, replacing Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had been named the new Secretary-General of NATO. A capable local politician in his forties, Lars Rasmussen had, in contrast to his predecessor, almost no experience in international politics. His appointment received little media coverage outside Denmark. But just eight months later, with Denmark the host of the Copenhagen climate summit (officially the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP-15), Lars Rasmussen’s—and Denmark’s—lack of experience in international politics would have a global impact.
For whatever reason—global warming seems to be one—Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier, whose runoff provided water for the contiguous cities of La Paz and El Alto for centuries, is now gone. Glaciers reconstitute themselves, if at all, outside the span of human time: we will not see so much ice shimmer again above the harsh brown altiplano, the highland plateau where two thirds of all Bolivians live. Other glaciers in the Bolivian Andes—like the Illimani, so beautiful to look at—are also melting, and in all likelihood will disappear before 2040.
In the fall of 1967 with two French friends I trekked from Kathmandu to the base of Mount Everest. At that time, climbing was forbidden in Nepal and the trekking business was in its infancy. During the thirty-seven days we were on our trek we saw less than a handful of other westerners and the ones we saw were in Nepal on official business. The high point of our trek in every sense was our climb of a small hillock named Kala Patthar.
As the UN’s Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen this week, much attention will focus on China and the United States, who are, by a wide margin, the world’s two leading emitters of greenhouse gases. The success of the conference will depend in part on whether both countries can live up to recent pledges by their leaders to curb emissions. Just as important for China, however, is the need to address repression—until now ignored by the Obama administration—of citizen activists trying to call attention to the country’s environmental problems.
It is often argued that cap and trade legislation requires too many compromises with—and give-aways to—polluting corporations to pass the House and Senate, and that consequently it is ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While environmentalists are failing to support cap and trade, those opposing action on climate change are fiercely attacking it. Yet such a system is essential when it comes to getting global action on climate change—not least at the increasingly imperilled climate summit in Copenhagen in December—for it delivers a transparent benchmark by which nations can judge each other’s commitment.
I have seen some woeful scenes of industrial apocalypse and pollution in my travels throughout China, but there are very few images that remain vividly in my mind. This is why the photographs of Lu Guang are so important. A fearless documentary photographer who lives in China’s southern province of Zhejiang and runs a photo studio and lab that funds his myriad trips around China, Lu photographs the dark consequences of China’s booming but environmentally destructive economic development in ways that stay with you.