Filmmaker Craig Leeson On Climate Change And His Newest Documentary, The Last Glaciers
Clinging to the side of a mountain, buffeted by relentless gales, Craig Leeson stands frozen in fear. “I’m as far out of my comfort zone as I can possibly go,” he says, fighting for breath in the thin air, his polarised glasses reflecting a jagged black and white landscape as far as the eye can see. It is pure determination that will push him to face his phobia of heights again and again as cameras roll continually. He wants the world to be scared too—only for a different reason.
Leeson’s 2016 documentary A Plastic Ocean shed light on how single-use items were polluting the planet. For his next project, the Hong Kong-based filmmaker and journalist swapped his snorkel for skis to document another environmental catastrophe for his next documentary—The Last Glaciers, set to premiere this year. In his determination to bring a bird’s eye view of melting rivers of ice to as many screens as possible, Leeson became a licensed paraglider, traversed knife-edged alpine ridges in punishing conditions and summited Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe and one of the deadliest in the world.
His new film actually began as a documentary about para-alpinism—an extreme sport that sees climbers scale mountains and then paraglide off their peaks—but Leeson’s attention quickly turned to the changing environment he encountered, and then his mission, he decided, should be to sound the alarm over the thawing of the world’s ice caps.
“It was the middle of winter and I’d gone to Val D’Isère,” says Leeson. “But it seemed odd to me that high up in the French alps, there was no snow, very little ice and it wasn’t really cold. I started talking to a lot of guides and people around the town and found that temperatures had been rising and glaciers melting over the last 20 to 30 years.”
Most of the earth’s supply of freshwater is stored as glacial ice, which covers about 10 per cent of its land surface. Bubbles of gas in these glaciers offer clues to how the atmosphere has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. While giving a corporate lecture on plastic soon after his trip to Val D’Isère, Leeson met leading French glaciologist Jérôme Chappellaz, whose work on ice cores has provided evidence that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have a strong influence on climate change—evidence that is being destroyed as a warming planet causes the vast rivers of ice at high altitudes to retreat by as much as one metre every year.
Learning about the loss of ice was “a lightbulb moment” for Leeson, who felt that the problem was neither being addressed nor publicised with the appropriate level of urgency.
The war on plastic has a clear cause, consequence and objective. Photographs of strangled turtles and tides of trash are unambiguous calls to action that provoke emotional responses to a problem increasingly on our doorsteps. Championed by wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough as “one of the most important films of our time”, A Plastic Ocean created a shockwave that has driven entire industries to evolve as a response to outraged consumers who now demand less wasteful business practices.
Ice caps, on the other hand, present a more abstract concern; they’re far away and hard to reach for most. The link between human emissions and these remote regions is complex and hard to capture in a film that non-scientists will want to watch. Al Gore succeeded in bringing phrases like “greenhouse gases” and “global warming” into the public lexicon with An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, but the pace of governments’ efforts to prevent the rise in temperatures that threatens to annihilate our species and most living creatures has been, well... glacial.
The UN’s State of the Climate report released in March depicts a shocking state of accelerating climate change, with melting ice linked to rising sea levels and knock-on effects on human migration, food security and marine life. Last year was the second warmest on record, while the period from 2015 to 2019 was the warmest five years ever. Glaciers were shown to have shrunk for the 32nd consecutive year. Raging fires, particularly in Australia, created a spike in carbon emissions, further entrenching the problem.
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“We’ve got the facts and yet we continue to go on as though nothing’s happening,” says Leeson, anger rising in his voice. “That’s what drives me with this film: the need to shake people and wake them up; to shake political leaders and say to them, ‘Listen, you guys have got families, you’ve got kids. This is their future. You’re not gambling with it: a gamble indicates that you know that the result could go either way; this is actually going to happen. We’re reaching this tipping point. And we know that it’s going to collapse life support systems. Yet we’re continuing to make decisions that are not altering that course that we’re on.”
The Last Glaciers presents a global issue through a lens of personal struggle. During filming, the Malibu home of executive producer William Pfeiffer burned down in the 2018 wildfires in California, a state that is slowly becoming inhospitable due to more frequent fires and water shortages caused by extreme heat.
The worst tragedy, albeit not one directly related to climate change, rocked the project last summer when cinematographer Cody Tuttle died in a paragliding accident in the Sierra Nevada while training for aerial shooting. Instead of halting production, the team pressed on, with part of the documentary dedicated to the memory of Tuttle, a noted environmentalist and humanitarian.
“We had a lot of difficulties along the way in terms of making the film, both emotionally and logistically,” says Leeson. “But that’s part of the story. We’re telling those stories within the film so that people understand its urgency and how important the issue is, and also the people who were involved in the making of the film still want it to go ahead despite their own personal losses—all because of the message.”
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Off the Beaten Track
Leeson could have taken an easier route through life: his father and grandfather worked at The Advocate, a newspaper covering the western quadrant of Tasmania. Growing up in the ’70s as a surf- and guitar-obsessed child who loved animals, Leeson had no interest in getting an office job, but was persuaded by his father, Allan, that journalism might be a good fallback. As it turned out, Leeson had the family flair for spinning a yarn, but felt guilty that connection had got him into the paper and yearned to grow his career on his own terms. The bright lights and adrenaline rush of broadcasting appealed: first radio, then television as Leeson—tall and athletic with a chiselled jaw and commanding gaze—became evening news anchor for ABC News in Tasmania.
Travelling through China in the ’90s piqued his interest in Asia, which led him to relocate to Hong Kong as the 1997 handover approached, covering politics throughout the region. But as the East Timor war began and a new millennium loomed, fatigue set in and journalism no longer held the same shine. “I’d just seen enough”, he says. After a few years of bouncing around, learning to fly fixed-wing aircraft in Miami, working for the National Geographic channel in Hong Kong, and a lucrative stint as a telecom strategist, he started his own production company, Ocean Vista Films, named after the suburb of Burnie he grew up in.
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Burnie—population 30,000—clings to the inside of Tasmania’s northwestern fletching, and was declared a city by Queen Elizabeth II just as Leeson was entering adulthood. This “city of makers” has fought to distance itself from a heavy industrial past; a paper mill, paint pigment factory and slaughterhouse brought prosperity and droves of workers to the port—as well as pollution.
“We didn’t have clear blue water growing up,” Leeson says. “When the weather would turn easterly, it would blow this effluent from the plants straight into the surf club beach, and your eyes would just go red and sting. If you swallowed the water, it would make you physically ill. But these industries paid extremely good wages.”
In an investigation for The Advocate in the mid ’80s, Leeson found that the state government was aware of carcinogenic chemicals in the water but had not demanded better waste management from factories. The story went viral, gaining Burnie a reputation as the nation’s dirtiest town and bringing an increased level of scrutiny that saw its dirtiest polluters legislated out of existence in the decade that followed.
“I learned the power of storytelling very quickly,” says Leeson. “It was a great way of seeing how it can completely turn an environment around in a way that benefits the community as well. It gave me a real sense of the potential of being a journalist.”
We’ve got the facts and yet we continue to go on as though nothing’s happening. That’s what drives me with this film: the need to shake people and wake them up
The Power of Stories
Leeson’s stoic demeanour belies a storyteller who isn’t too hardened by three decades reporting on heavy-hitting topics to be moved by scenes of grandeur in nature, or too serious-minded to see the funny side of filming—such as having the presence of mind when being defecated on by a whale (a scene from A Plastic Ocean that was sadly relegated to the cutting-room floor) to scoop up a bucket of the orange faeces “for science”, giving marine biologists who were onboard a new line of research into the eating habits and microbiomes of the world’s largest and most elusive mammals.
Leeson’s work has seen him speak alongside climate campaigner Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum and advise for the British Plastics Federation. However, he rejects the term “activist”, insisting that his job is to show his audience evidence and leave them to draw their own conclusions. To switch off, he dives, surfs and swims, and rocks out on stage with his band, Uranus. He might not be a strict vegan or adhere to a spartan lifestyle, but avoids plastic and red meat and invests in carbon offsetting programmes. “I’m all sorts of things: I am a historian; I’m a storyteller; I’m a journalist; I’m a filmmaker, and the documentaries I’m making at the moment are environmentally focused because I think they’re important stories that need to be told,” he says.
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Leeson was adamant that The Last Glaciers—like A Plastic Ocean before it—needed to be shot on cinema-quality cameras. Difficult to use underwater and harder still to lug up mountains, the cameras represent Leeson’s steadfast commitment to creating the kind of immersive images that linger in viewers’ minds after credits have rolled—they also turn the documentaries into theatrical events people are willing to pay to see. It paid off with A Plastic Ocean, which has been screened in more than 70 countries and has won its creator several armfuls of awards. And The Last Glaciers is sure to be similarly hard to turn away from when it premieres this year.
After that? You’ll find Leeson in his natural habitat for a while, the waves around his feet and a guitar strung across his body as he waits for the next cause to demand his lens. Whatever he puts his mind to next, Leeson will move mountains to see it through.
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