Climate Change in China: Jeff Orlowski Shares About Travelling with Chasing Ice

Jeff Orlowski, Director, Chasing Ice

The American Embassy in China established a pollution index that measures particular matter in the air under 2.5 microns.  At that size, particles have the capacity to pass from the lungs directly into the blood stream and from there, they can apparently pass straight into the brain.  The scale, known as PM2.5, tops out at 500.  I’ve heard that the highest ever recorded in the Continental US was in the middle of a forest fire, the measurement was around 400.  Earlier this year, Beijing hit over 900 and in the past it has broken 1,000.

With Beijing being one of the most polluted cities in the world, I knew that it was going to be interesting to screen a movie about climate change in China.  Chasing Ice was really made for an American audience first and foremost, but the visual evidence of the world’s changing glaciers doesn’t need any translation.  But how would China, a country growing faster than it knows how to deal with, respond to the film?  There is no place where the struggle between economic development and environmental sustainability more clear and present than in China.  While we have screening Chasing Ice to hundreds of audiences from all around the world, I had no idea what to expect in China.

Before traveling, a friend of mine sent me a report about how China views the issue of climate change.  As a result of communism, the Chinese see this from a very different perspective.  The average citizen in China doesn’t see this as an issue that individuals can influence.  Instead, they think it’s something that only the government can address.  And because of the well-known government censorship over many issues, I was curious to know how much the public even knew about the realities of climate change.  

Film Forward took a total of 7 films to China, and I traveled with the Film Forward team as well as director Patricia Riggen who brought her feature debut La Misma Luna.  The China tour took us to Beijing and Hefei, and I learned right before the trip that my maternal grandfather was actually from Hefei.  When we arrived in Beijing, I thought it was a very cloudy overcast day until I realized that what I was seeing was smog and pollution.  I’m someone who grew up in New York and I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles, and I have never seen air quality as bad as this.  In fact it was so bad that I got a respiratory infection less than a week into the trip.  But the scary thing was that the Americans at the Embassy described this as the cleanest air they’ve seen in quite some time.  One Embassy staff member said that when she travels outside of Beijing, she remembers how “bright” the rest of the world is.

The first Chasing Ice screening was at the Beijing Film Academy, and the audience response was spectacular.  The Q&A went for quite some time, probably over 40 minutes, and the feedback was all positive.  A number of people commented about how strongly the film changed their opinion, and that they had never seen evidence like this before.  At one point I asked the audience if the film had changed their opinion about climate change, and the vast majority of the audience raised their hands.  But it was the second screening, at Anhui University, that was most impressive.  The audience was exclusively college students and some teachers, probably around 250 total in attendance.  When I asked them if Chasing Ice changed their perspective of the issue, virtually every single student raised their hand.  

During the Q&A at Anhui University, the conversation shifted to “what you can do.”  And when discussing the issue, I really impressed upon the students that climate change is a human made problem that humans can solve.  We got into this problem one light bulb and one plane flight at a time, and we can get out of it the same way.  And just how James Balog used his skills as a photographer to make a difference about the issue, every person in that audience has unique skills that can be put to use, that can make a difference.  We all need to do everything we can to address this issue together.

The next day, we had a screening at an underground bookstore.  One of the students from the day prior, Sean, served as our translator.  At some point he pulled out his iPad, and I saw a photo of the Chasing Ice poster as his background image.  He told me that he felt so inspired from the screening and Q&A, and that he now believes that he can truly make a difference in the world.  Who knows what he’ll end up doing?  Who knows what kind of difference he will make?  But at least because of Film Forward and that screening of Chasing Ice, I’ve got to believe he’s going in the right direction.

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