26 images capture the devastation of climate change – and hope for the future

As the COP26 climate change conference approaches, there has never been a more critical time for nations to push for change – and there has never been more tools with which to do so. Photography can capture both.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic Image Collection
Published 30 Oct 2021, 08:00 BST

POWERFUL images can shock, and terrify. They can draw you in, or make you turn away. Whatever front line the lens is pointed over – be it war, poverty, disease or any number of extreme situations – the resulting pictures stand witness to some of modern history’s most appalling events.  Photography is a currency that can condemn, or validate. Inspire, and motivate. Remind us of hard truths, long after living memory has faded.

In short, pictures can change the world. And as our world's people come to terms with the reality of climate change, never has that been more needed.

(Related: what is COP26, and why is it a big deal?)

Some images offer an instant visual punch to the guts: the effect a decade of acidification and temperature rise on a coral outcrop on the Great Barrier Reef, for instance, with an older photograph juxtaposed into the scene by photographer David Doubilet. Even on a printout, the photo's vibrancy versus the real coral is staggering.

Then there are the mountains of waste clothing in one processing plant in Italy, given scale by the two humans – a designer and model – in the bottom corner. This image, by Luca Locatelli, was used by National Geographic to highlight a better use for the colossal waste generated by the fashion industry, and the needlessly short lifespan of its often environmentally costly product.

Like the climate emergency itself, the power of some images isn't always so immediately appreciated. Sometimes it is the subtleties, and not always obvious, that speak the most worrying truth. Newsha Tavakolian's majestic image of Iran's Lake Urmia, for instance, could be any desert scene, of any inland sea – until you realise that the lake has lost 90% of its volume in just a couple of decades. (Related: these are the most powerful pictures of a historic year.)

Matthieu Paley's images of children splashing in the waters of Delhi's Yamuna river could be taken at face value, were it not for the pervasive details: the rubbish collecting in the filthy margins, through which the children pick, for items of income. And David Guttenfelder's aerial shot of Miami's Sunny Isles beach has an altitude that allows you to see the dense detail of the urban strip just feet from the sea – and to appreciate how delicate it is against the immensity of the ever-stormier Atlantic.

But amidst these odds, there is hope. Images that inspire in their ability to show that change is not only possible, it is happening – and that we have the ingenuity and the skill to make a real difference. Nature is resilient, and given the chance, it can recover. Be it through the shoots of mangroves through the sand of a Kiribati beach, a scientist growing bioengineered plants in a greenhouse powered by volcanic energy, or the Copenhagen incinerator that generates energy as it disposes of waste – and also doubles as a ski slope, a climbing wall and a running track. 

As COP26 – the UN's global climate change conference – approaches, the world is taking stock of the undeniable effects of climate change. But in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, its citizens are now more aware than ever before that collective action can prompt dramatic global change.

Sometimes, all it takes is one image. More often, it's simply a collection of vignettes that show us what is at stake, what is happening to it – and more importantly, what we can do about it. 

National Geographic is committed to encouraging positive action at an individual level to help curb climate change. In the run-up to COP26, discover more ways we all can live lighter on the planet here.

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