Ontario filmmaker combats climate change with a camera

Hanging from the handrail like it was a monkey bar, as the ship pitched over on its side, Mark Terry began to rethink his Antarctic adventure.

Hanging from the handrail like it was a monkey bar, as the ship pitched over on its side, Mark Terry began to rethink his Antarctic adventure.

The Toronto broadcast journalist was crossing the roughest waters in the world, off the tip of South America, to make a movie about Antarctic science, which he knew nothing about.

That was the point.

“There was lots of info out there about the research being done in the Arctic, but there was nothing on Antarctica,” said Terry.

“There were no reports reaching the media, so I decided to go there and do the story directly.”

Terry didn’t plan it this way, but he happened to arrive at the frozen South Pole just months before the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009.

Back in Canada, piecing together his first film, Terry suddenly got a call – from the United Nations.

The Copenhagen conference organizers had realized they had no information on what was happening in Antarctic and Terry was their only hope.

“That’s how it all began,” he said in a telephone interview from Ontario this week.

Terry’s film, The Antarctic Challenge: A Global Warning, screened multiple times at the conference, reaching policy-makers, politicians and scientists.

“My film bridged the gap between scientists and policy-makers,” he said.

“There is a disconnect between scientific journals as thick as phone books and the policy-makers who find them too daunting to read.”

But Terry doesn’t mind slogging through all the dry scientific jargon to get to the root of the discoveries.

“I’ve always been an academic at heart,” said the English and media major.

So Terry starts with the scientific journals, then tracks down the scientists in order to create films that will reach policy-makers and the public.

Terry’s film was such a hit in Copenhagen, he was invited to the next climate change conference in Cancun in 2010.

This time, he was asked to bring a film about Arctic research.

“Usually, it takes about a year to make a film,” he said.

But Terry only had a few months.

And most of this was spent on a ship crossing the Northwest Passage from Alaska to Greenland.

When he got off the ship, Terry had only three weeks until the film was going to be screened in Cancun.

“I had to work fast,” he said. “So I did it as a video log.”

The new film focused on the imminent threat of rising sea levels.

“The land ice is melting much faster than any of us realized,” said Terry. “And this large volume of fresh water is now being added to the world’s seas, posing a threat to coastal communities around the world.”

Made in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program and finished just in time for Cancun, the film, The Polar Explorer, was a huge hit at the conference.

“I found myself sitting down with negotiators and making new policy with governments from all over the world,” said Terry.

The film even resulted in a new resolution being added to the Kyoto Protocol.

But Terry didn’t sit down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“He was there,” said Terry. “And there was even talk about doing a special screening with Canada’s Environment minister as a co-host.”

But it never happened.

In fact, Terry didn’t even see Harper at any of his screenings.

“I kind of thought I’d see him there,” he said.

But Harper’s noticeable absence didn’t stop Terry from meeting with a huge variety of policy-makers in Cancun.

“I am going to save lives around the world with my films, whether the Canadian government is behind me or not,” he said.

Since then, Terry has travelled across Canada and to Russia, screening his film and talking about climate change.

This week he was off to the Dominican Republic and New York before heading north to Whitehorse where he’ll speak next week.

“I think I’m onto something, bridging the gap between science and policy with film,” said Terry.

Film is a really powerful message, he said. “And the medium delivers the message.”

Terry’s next film is going to be a youth climate report.

“I am getting young people to interview local climate experts wherever they are in the world,” he said.

It’s important for people to know what’s happening in the polar regions “because no one’s holding a press conference on it,” he said.

The most recent Arctic news out of Canada is not hopeful.

The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island is being shut down on April 30 because scientists can’t find the $1.5 million the lab needs annually to operate.

It’s one of only three in the world. Scientists at the lab were measuring carbon in the atmosphere as well as ozone and climatic conditions. The lab was also supporting atmospheric science programs all over the globe.

“Our most valuable outpost is being shut down,” said Terry. “But this research needs to be done.”

The lab has been used to research high-altitude winds, changes to the ozone layer and atmospheric temperature and pressure, while infrared measurements have been used to determine the composition of the atmosphere above the Arctic.

“It’s one of only a few on the globe that can do these types of measurements,” said the lab’s principal investigator, Prof. James Drummond, in a previous interview with the News.

“And now Canada is closing its lab instead,” Drummond said. “Nobody I’ve spoken to in the international community thinks it’s anything better than a really bad idea.”

Despite all the bad news, Terry remains optimistic when it comes to climate change.

And he plans to keep on making films and reaching out to policy-makers with palatable science.

“You’re guaranteed not to score on 100 per cent of the shots you never take,” said Terry, quoting Wayne Gretzky.

Terry is in Whitehorse on Thursday, March 22.

He will be hosting a discussion on climate change at the Yukon Arts Centre and screening both The Antarctic Challenge: A Global Warning and The Polar Explorer. The evening starts at 7 p.m.

Contact Genesee Keevil at


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