The LEAF award seeks to recognize artists who have devoted a large portion of their effort to addressing environmental issues. Balog received the award as a result of his photographic work, which includes a series of time-lapse photographs documenting the retreat of glaciers across the world as a result of climate change. These time-lapse projects were the focus of the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, which has received wide recognition, including a screening at the White House and a spot at the Sundance London Film Festival.
“Artists have an incredible power and opportunity to influence how people feel and act about the environment," said William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. “This award is intended to recognize those artists who have done that as a way of encouraging other artists to do the same.”
During the awards ceremony, which featured musical performances and speeches, Chameides showed a selection of Balog’s work, which includes not only the time-lapse glacier photography featured in Chasing Ice but also other environmental photography, including photos of environmental disasters and studio photos of animals.
When accepting the award, Balog argued that enough people already have some understanding that climate change is a threat to humanity.
“It’s been shown very clearly in the polls, despite all the glumness to the contrary, that a strong majority of the United States understands that there’s change in the atmosphere, there’s change in the climate, and that it’s connected with how we’re handling the burning of our fuels and how we’re deforesting plants in the Amazon,” Balog said.
Instead, he said that the problem is getting people to act and emphasized the importance of storytelling in the effort to bring about change in policies affecting the environment.
“We need storytelling,” Balog said. “We have these patterns that are understood, and we need stories that come from art to illuminate and animate what’s going on and to create some sense that we need to do things different in the future. We need to have a perception of the urgency of the situation.”
After the award ceremony, Congressman Scott Peters, Trinity ’80—who represents the San Diego, Cali. area—said that he appreciates how the LEAF award recognizes non-traditional contributions to environmental science and environmental policymaking.
“It doesn’t all just come from labs or from monitors or meters. It’s all important, but it does come from the heart too,” he said.
Susan Schaffer, a Durham resident who attended the ceremony, appreciated the illustrations of climate change which Balog’s work provides as well as the inspiring nature of his speech.
“I thought Mr. Balog’s speech was very inspiring. It’s very easy to get pessimistic and down about the future, especially with all the money going into opposition of trying to save the environment,” Schaffer said. “His words were very practical and very inspiring.”
During a reception after the ceremony, Balog said that he was honored to receive the award, and felt that it would provide a boost to him and his team. He also emphasized the broad nature of climate change, saying that it was not a partisan or sectional issue.
“Climate change is a universal human issue,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to red or blue, Republican or Democrat. It has direct and immediate concerns for all of us. I try not to let these conversations get politicized.”
The award has been given annually since 2009, and past recipients include actor Robert Redford and musician Jackson Browne. The award ceremony was attended by a large number of alumni—here for reunion weekend—as well as members of the local community.