Climate Change Up Close and Personal

David Salvesen understands the power of film. As a researcher at the University of North Carolina who studies and teaches sustainable land use, he didn’t set out to become a documentarian. But he wanted to learn why public opinion doesn’t always coincide with the consensus among the scientists about the effects of climate change.

“It’s a pretty sizeable group that doesn’t believe in it,” he said. “And many scientists are kind of attacked for their position on climate change.”

So Salvesen turned to people who work outside and recorded their personal experiences with the land and water around them. The result is “Climate Stories NC,” a series of short videos that feature beekeepers, Christmas tree growers, fishermen and conservationists. Each is a first-person account of work and life.

“These interviews are based on their own observations,” he said.

David Salvesen

David Salvesen

One subject, G. Richard Mode of Morganton, said he believed that “climate change was something Al Gore cooked up in his basement.” But as he got older he watched how warming temperatures altered his beloved hobbies – trout fishing and duck hunting. Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, a third-generation beekeeper, discusses the decline in honeybee populations and how the changing climate and shorter spring seasons disrupt her hives.

On the coast, Willy Phillips is owner of the Full Circle Crab Co. Inc. in Columbia and offers a fisherman’s perspective to the series. He’s been active in water quality and other issues for many years and was also on the state Marine Fisheries Commission.

“People are always trying to advance an agenda of one kind or another, he said. “But this is just common sense observation.”

He’s also willing to talk about these issues, because he’s more outspoken than many fisherman are because of his time in the public sphere.

“When you live in the swamp, like we do, things change fast,” he said. “It’s pretty dramatic, the changes we’ve seen in just a generation. We’re on the front lines. We’re on the cutting edge of this experiment we’re conducting with nature.”

Salvesen is the director of UNC’s Institute for the Environment’s Sustainable Triangle Field Site, which focuses on issues and challenges related to sustainable cities and urban planning.

“I don’t really have experience with film,” he said.  “I’ve learned it’s actually very complicated to produce these short films.”

He’s working with editor John Wilson and videographer Warren Gentry to shoot the interviews and background footage, and he is spending hours editing the video packages.  Salvesen received a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation for “Climate Stories NC.”

Right now, a handful of videos are available online and Salvesen expects to have as many as 18 of them edited and posted by the end of the summer. Many of the segments are short, less than four minutes long.

“I wanted to make them available to environmental groups and organizations that do advocacy,” he said. “Most of the groups I reached out to said that shorter is better.”

So far, he’s hosted two screenings and discussions but hopes to add more to his calendar in the coming months. The idea is for people to watch them when and where they can to further the conversation about how climate is affecting lives in North Carolina.

“The people’s consciousness on these issues has evolved quicker than the leadership’s,” Phillips said.

Because they see what is happening, Phillips and other fishermen are more ready to ask questions about things like sea-level rise and policy changes. And he believes that film is a tool that can help bring about these important discussions.

“I think it’s really the only way to approach a majority of the population,” he said.

Willie Phillips, a fisherman and fish dealer in Columbia, talks about the changes he and other fishermen have seen related to climate change.

When plans were made more than 20 years ago to place a hazardous waste incinerator in his county of a few hundred residents, it was difficult to build a consensus against it – until they placed a TV set in front of the grocery store and played videos of people discussing the issue. “Within a few days, the commissioners were forced to reject the plan.”

The ability to film and show films about these issues across platforms both new and traditional is powerful. “It’s a wonderful thing,” Phillips said. “And it’s a wonderful thing to show people what we do.”

The power of a picture is also being used to remind people about the possible effects of offshore drilling.  Screenings of “Shore Stories,” are meant to show local audiences how communities around the world have been affected by offshore drilling. The Atlantic Ocean has been taken out of the federal proposal for new offshore oil and gas leases for the time being, but there is still more to do.

“I hope the movie will galvanize people,” said Mike Giles, coastal advocate with the N.C. Coastal Federation. “It’s something we still need to be concerned about.”

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About the Author

Allison Ballard

Allison Ballard is an award-winning writer and journalist who covers topics such as food, film, science and the environment for a variety of local and regional publications. Since early days as high-school reporter, she’s gained experience in much larger newsrooms and through graduate programs at the University of Cape Town and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Allison loves to travel, but always returns home to the North Carolina coast.