In Tribute: Gary Braasch, Photojournalist of Global Warming and a Friend

This morning NWNL joins so many others in mourning the unexpected death of Gary Braasch while snorkeling at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He was there working on his decades-long project to photographically document the impacts of global warming and climate change.

Gary’s work can be seen on his website. His life’s work and critically important book is Earth Under Fire.

Personally stunned with sadness, I glanced through a treasury of nature writing that a friend shared with me this morning as condolence. I randomly opened to John Muir’s words after a dangerous climb on Mt Ritter in California’s High Sierras (in Words for the Wild, Sierra Club Books, 1987, page 111):

“How truly glorious the landscape circled around this noble summit! — giant mountains, valleys innumerable, glaciers and meadows, rivers and lakes, with the wide blue sky bent tenderly over them all.  But in my first hour of freedom from that terrible shadow, the sunlight in which I was lavishing seemed all in all.”

In 2003 Gary was recognized as Photographer of the Year by NANPA (The North American Nature Photography Association) for his “unquestioned skill and excellence as a nature photographer who had produced extraordinary recent work of significance to the industry.” As a member of that Awards Committee that chose him, I was stunned then by the immensity of his seemingly-impossible, self-assigned task to photograph global warming. I sought him out in the halls of NANPA’s Annual Summit before his award presentation to introduce myself and say congratulations. I was impressed then and always by his outgoing friendliness and support of other photographers, including myself, wanting to use our cameras as a tool for conservation. Gary set a high bar of standards for all conservation photographers.

Gary was determined to impress on all the impending impacts of climate change, the ever-increasing pitch of the whistle from this freight train coming down the tracks right at us. My awe of his work continued each time we met as colleagues in NANPA, the International League of Conservation Photographers and the Society of Environmental Journalists. In 2011, after attending the decommissioning of Washington’s Elwah and Glines Canyon Dams, I traveled to Portland to interview Gary for No Water No Life, puzzled that I had not done so earlier!

His words then are so relevant today – especially as we read that last week the term “climate change” was included for the first time in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Hopefully Gary heard that news, as well as news three days ago that his home-state of Oregon will be the first US state to cut ties with coal-fired power. Here are Gary’s clear and thoughtful remarks on “Clean Coal” that concluded our 90-minute interview in Portland (Sept 27, 2011):

People in the coal industry and the power industry talk about “clean coal.” Well, first of all, it’s just a bumper-sticker in terms of words. There’s no such thing as “clean coal.”

What they meant by “clean coal” when they started using that as an advertising campaign was that they were going to find a way to take the CO2 out of coal and put it into the ground so it didn’t get into the air. That’s all it meant.

That is still a huge engineering problem that may not be solvable; but if we can reduce the amount of CO2 from coal in any way, we should try it. I think we should keep looking into sequestering CO2 as a way of putting away and not letting it get in the air. That’s important to try.

But even when they call it “clean coal,” they’re ignoring the fact that continued mining is destroying Appalachia and parts of the West. In the process of getting this stuff out of the ground in the first place, coal mining is destroying lives and creating air and water pollution.   What can we do with the deadly emissions still coming out of coal that is burned — including mercury, CO2 and incredible pollutions from chemicals like nitrates? What can we do about the poisonous, cancer-causing and land-destroying ash waste that comes out of coal-burning power plants? It’s deadly. “Clean coal” advocates are ignoring all of that.

From the shovel, to burning coal, to getting rid of the coal ash — coal is dirty all the way through. There’s just no such thing as “clean coal.”

Thank you, Gary, for your photography, your dedication, your impact on so many of us, and your friendship.

With sadness, Alison

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