Producers Erik Osterholm and Alex Braverman describe the "holy shit" moments that informed their understanding of the devastating environmental and human tolls of climate change.
In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show which will premiere this February, we are releasing all of season three for free online. Watch all the episodes here, and don't miss the premiere of season four on Friday, February 5, at 11PM on HBO.
In the premiere of the third season of VICE on HBO, VICE founder Shane Smith and correspondent Vikram Gandhi revisited a topic that's been covered previously on the show: the Earth's melting polar ice caps. Having visited Greenland in the second season, Smith headed to Antarctica to investigate the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Over the course of the episode, he and Gandhi see firsthand the devastating impact that global warming has wrought on the southern pole—and meet some of the people already been impacted by rising sea levels.
While talking to NASA's Eric Rignot about the agency's mission to study land ice levels, Shane asked if the glaciologist had a "holy shit moment" when he learned that three meters of sea level rise were almost inevitable.
"That's not 'holy shit'—it's worse than that," Rignot replied. "We're not ready for this."
But producers Erik Osterholm and Alex Braverman said they had their own "holy shit" moments while shooting—moments that impacted the direction of the episode, and ultimately linked what would have been two separate stories—one about ice melt, and one about its impact on human populations—into a single story line.
"It's all tied together," said Osterholm, who produced the portions of the episode shot in Antarctica. "It goes from massive blocks of ice melting in the ocean to the human faces, and the impact that the melt is going to cause."
Osterholm and his crew took a sailboat to Antarctica via the Drake Passage, a 500-mile stretch of stormy seas between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic peninsula. It's a short route, but it's rough going: the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern oceans all converge at the Drake Passage, turning it into a roiling mess of waves and competing currents. "Once you get seasick on a passage like that, there's really no respite," Osterholm said. Plus, he pointed out, the route is extremely isolated. "When you sail, there's usually a coast guard, and you can say 'Oh, as long as I can survive a week, the coast guard will get me,'" he explained, "but you really don't have that option in Antarctica."
But the "holy shit" moment that informed the episode wasn't when he feared for his own life, but when he finally had the overwhelming realization that the continent's melting ice sheet is putting much of humanity in danger.
"The vastness [of Antarctica] is mesmerizing" Osterholm said, describing his flight with NASA over the Western Antarctic ice sheet. But it also brought on an unsettling understanding, he added, that "this is a giant ice cube that's begun to melt, and—holy crap—if this thing goes, we're not talking about incremental amounts of sea rise."
"Get your ticket to Antarctica now," he joked.
While Osterholm's team was in Antartica, Braverman was in southern Bangladesh, exploring the human consequences of the Earth's rising sea levels. The people VICE spoke with had been farming for generations, Braverman said, but thanks to a couple centuries worth of industrial hydrocarbons, they now find themselves refugees of climate change.
"It was as though we were watching a certain way of life be washed away and pushed into the city," Braverman said. As salt water encroaches upon areas used for agriculture, he explained, ocean water mingles with farmland and the increased salinity in the soil kills any agricultural prospects, even if the land itself is not submerged.
When it came to connecting all this to global warming, Braverman added, oftentimes the locals had no clue. "We asked probably every person we talked to, 'Why is this happening?'" he recalled, "and some people had an answer, and some people said 'I really don't know, my family's been here forever, but now we can't do this anymore.'"
It's not just farmers who are suffering. According to Braverman, sex workers are also among those whose professions have been adversely affected by the rising sea levels. While shooting for the episode, VICE visited an island called Banishanta, near a port in the south of Bangladesh, which Braverman described as "basically an entire red light district."
"Each little hut was a separate window where someone lived and worked as a prostitute, and they had their families there," he explained. "That way of life is disappearing."
But Braverman's "holy shit" moment came after a storm left the crew stranded in one of Bangladesh's farming communities—and the effect of the encroaching waters finally hit home in a visceral way.
"We didn't have much food, and we felt like we were going to be stuck there for the night. I all of a sudden understood that it wasn't just like a box we were ticking off on our list," he said. "These people live in very near constant fear that they could slide into the water at any moment."
The fact that Western visitors would have the luxury of leaving Bangladesh wasn't lost on locals experiencing the negative impact of global warming, Braverman added.
"They weren't rude about it, but they wanted us, as representatives of the Western world, to know that this was our fault," he said. "They wanted us to be aware of the fact that the way we conduct business, this is the outcome."
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.