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Discussing white balance with Lemn Sissay

On the chartered plane on the way to Kangerlussuac to meet the boat I am sitting next to the Lemn Sissay, who writes witty and beautiful poetry amazingly quickly. He is reading poetry and I am reading my new camera manual, which sums up a few things.

Then we start seeing poetry in the camera manual: focus point, focus lock, release mode, live view, auto sensitivity, aperture priority,exposure compensation, colour space, interrupt interval, white balance.

White balance is a good metaphor for some of what Cape Farewell is about. How the polar ice caps help keep the delicate balance that has given the earth its remarkably stable, and self stabilising, climate for a few thousand years. We are seeing that balance being upset in an unimaginably forceful way. Simon, one of the scientists in our crew, was telling me how he had recently come across some climate predictions modelled in 2001 and realised that the ice cover reductions predicted to happen by 2050 had already happened in 2007 and 2008.

While one of the crew, using GPS, counts down to the crossing of the Arctic Circle the stewardess has her picture taken with Jarvis Cocker. The specialness of the journey hits home at the first sight of the icebergs off the Greenland coast. Now there is real excitement and everyone is moving about the plane hardly believing that we will be visiting the kind of landscape we can see below us.

We follow a fjord inland seeing glacier after glacier discharging into its waters. Some of these slow-moving rivers of ice appear to be tens of miles long, and before they break up into icebergs, they make beautiful patterns like the scale of a snake. Then we are over one of the great deserts of the world, the Greenland icecap, which is actually getting thicker as the warmer coastal waters cause an increase in snow fall.

So far it has felt just like that first day at big school. Even the number of us is about class size. The only people who know what they are doing are the organisers, the scientists and the camera crew. The remaining two thirds feel it is right that we are here but can’t be sure to achieve what is expected of us. That uncertainty is a great leveller, but in the strangely crowded prefab canteen of Kangerlussuac air strip it is an effort to be nonchalant about queuing up for a sandwich with Laurie Anderson.

There may be uncertainty about exactly what we will do or make but we know we are here to communicate the message of climate change to an audience that science and environmental activism has so far not reached. Earlier in the week in his speech to the Labour Party conference Gordon Brown talked of the recent banking meltdown as the ‘Earth shifting on its axis’. How then to describe the infinitely more momentous unfolding of climate change?

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