Ten photographs that made the world wake up to climate change

Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier are award-winning photographers who have chosen 10 powerful photos that have changed our attitudes to climate change.

Ten photographs that made the world wake up to climate change

Editor's note: Call to Earth, a CNN editorial program, is dedicated to reporting the environmental challenges that our planet faces and the solutions. Rolex Perpetual Planet has partnered up with CNN in order to raise awareness and educate people about sustainability issues.


The image of water cascading down a wall of ice, with gray clouds above it, is beautiful. But the truth behind this picture is that Earth's glaciers have been melting at an unprecedented pace due to climate change caused by humans.

Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen recalls taking the photo. In August 2014, temperatures in Svalbard were above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. He saw more than 12 waterfalls flowing off the face of an icecap on Nordaustlandet Island as he rounded a corner.

He recalls, 'It's the most beautiful, poetic scene I have ever seen. But it's also haunting, and scary.' Nicklen's most popular fine art picture, the image became a symbol of climate change. The image appeared in National Geographic multiple times, Al Gore used it in his climate talks and Pearl Jam used it on the cover of their 2020 album, 'Gigaton', which is the unit of ice mass.

Nicklen believes that its beauty is the key to its impact. "When you capture a photo that is properly exposed, moody, and in focus, it creates an emotional reaction," he says. It has to be engaging and beautiful, and have a conservation theme.

Nicklen co-founded SeaLegacy in 2014 with his wife Cristina Mittermeier and Andy Mann, both award-winning photographers.

Mittermeier says that photography is one of the best tools to use when telling complex stories like those about climate change.

One of her photographs taken in August 2017 showed a starving bear. The photo and video accompanying it were shared by news agencies and social media around the world after being published in National Geographic. The photo and accompanying video sparked global conversations on climate change. Responses ranged from empathy and concern to climate denial. It was a global phenomenon that still has a strong impact on people today.

Nicklen, Mittermeier, and other CNN Call to Earth guest editors selected these images along with eight others that they believed have alerted people to the climate change crisis.

War Photographers

Nicklen likens the act of photographing climate changes to that of photographing a conflict. We're on the frontlines of the war waged against the planet. He says it's emotionally exhausting.

Images have been more explicit in capturing the urgency of climate catastrophes over the past decades. Ed Ram's photographs of six giraffes emaciated by lack of water and food, depict the horrors of Kenya's ongoing, prolonged drought that has affected and displaced both animals and people. Wildfires in Australia, which ravaged the country in 2019 and 2020 are a great example of how devastation can be. Homes on fire, and animals fleeing with despair, are all captured in photographs.

Mittermeier says that the data shows climate change doesn't only happen in other places, but everywhere. "Suddenly, it'll knock on your door."

Mittermeier recalls her friend, Gary Braasch. She describes him as a "chronicler" of climate change. The photographer who died in 2016 spent the last 20 years of his life documenting the Earth's response to global climate change - from Antarctica with its melting ice caps to Bhola island in Bangladesh where rising sea levels and erosion have transformed villages into islands. Braasch's dedication to the cause set the example for Nicklen's and Mittermeier’s generation of conservationist photographers.

Slow retreat

Climate change can sometimes be tediously slow. The sea level rises by millimeters every year, a hardly visible increment even though it is happening faster than ever. These changes are cumulative, and their impact is evident if visually documented over a period of years or decades.

Mittermeier says that it's like taking a picture of a tsunami moving slowly. It's difficult to see at the time, but if you compare two photos, it is hard not to notice the impact of the climate crisis.

She says that the work of James Balog, a photographer who specializes in time-lapse photography, has been essential to creating a visual narrative about climate change. His Extreme Ice Survey, which uses a network time-lapse cameras to record glaciers all over the world, has shown how glaciers disappear over time. The vast archive of photographs of each glacier, taken at every daylight moment throughout the year, has provided a baseline against which changes in future can be measured.

Mittermeier says, "It was irrefutable evidence." "That was an important moment for climate photographs."


Mittermeier & Nicklen selected images of humans and nature interacting. Climate change has led to a dramatic decline in biodiversity. According to the WWF 2022 Living Planet Report, since 1970, wildlife populations are down 69%. This is primarily due to land-use changes that have fragmented vital habitats and to rising temperatures which have caused mass mortality events.

Polar bears are losing their ice because the Arctic is warming four times faster than other parts of the world. Dmitry Kokh’s photo 'House of Bears', one of the winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the year award for 2022, shows polar bearings roaming around an abandoned Soviet settlement in Kolyuchin Island. Mittermeier says that although the buildings were long abandoned, they illustrate the growing problem of polar bearings, who have no ice to hunt on, encroaching into human space and interacting with locals, resulting in tragic outcomes on both sides.

Climate change is already having an impact on both animals and humans. Mittermeier says that it's impossible to deny we're all in this together. We are all affected in devastating ways and we can't separate ourselves from life on this planet.

Nick Brandt's series "The Day May Break" shows people and animals who have been affected by environmental destruction. These photographs were taken in animal refuges around the globe. They feature people who have been displaced due to climate change events, such as floods or drought, and animals who have been victims of wildlife trafficking or habitat destruction. The fact that both are shown in the same picture shows how closely our fates intertwine.

There are images that show devastation, but there are also some that inspire hope. Brandt points out in his work that both the people and the animals are survivors.

Mittermeier, Nicklen and SeaLegacy are all committed to spreading a message that inspires hope. Mittermeier says that Martin Luther King did not begin his famous speech with the reminder that we are living in a nightmare. He told us what our dream was. You have to show what we are aspiring for and where hope lies.

She believes that the hope lies in wildlife and oceans. The human race is only just beginning to understand the importance of wildlife and the ocean in mitigating the effects of climate change. Restoring nature will be key in preventing the crisis. Mittermeier's photograph of a sea-lion rising to the surface of the Galapagos, one of the world's largest marine protected areas, shows how ocean life flourishes with the right protection. Nicklen believes that Nicklen's photo of a bowhead is one of the best allies we have in our fight against climate change. Not only do whales store enormous amounts of carbon but their feces also fuel phytoplankton, which absorbs carbon dioxide.

The couple believes that by showing the beauty of our planet, they can convince people it's still worth fighting for.

Nicklen says, "We are trying to climb the highest mountain to shout from its top that the planet is dying and we are in danger."

Mittermeier adds, "But the only emotion that is greater than fear...is hope." "The only way to feel hope is by taking action."