Editor’s note: Back in January, during a private gathering of documentary film funders at the Sundance Film Festival, we had the pleasure of hearing from filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, whose latest documentary Chasing Coral uses beautiful time-lapse imagery to document the world’s dying coral reefs. Orlowski shared details on his new film’s impact strategy, the importance of simplifying scientific data for the public, and more. During the meeting, Orlowski commented that the film was meant not for the hardcore climate skeptics but those who find themselves somewhere in the middle of the debate. And he added that it was important to consider who is delivering these messages of change: “If the messages came from the tree huggers, they aren’t as effective as when they come from the farmers, fishermen, and the non-tree huggers,” he said. We got to know the Sundance Discovery Impact fellow last year during an interview about his Emmy Award-winning Chasing Ice, which follows an acclaimed environmental photographer on a dangerous trek through the Arctic. Check out the Chasing Ice trailer, along with clips and excerpts from our discussion with Orlowski, here.
In recent weeks, Americans have experienced remarkably balmy midwinter temperatures, an early and eerie echo of the past few years when the globe has been steadily smashing records for warmth.

On the other side of the world, on the Indonesian island of Bali, international leaders in business, science, and government gathered for the World Ocean Summit 2017, reflecting on the perilous state of our undersea ecosystems. Of particular concern were predictions that we will lose 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs by 2050 if we do not take urgent action to protect critical marine areas.

At the ocean summit, three major grant makers—the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies—announced 50 Reefs, a project to save coral systems from extinction. The combined $2 million outlay for the effort’s first phase will pay for a scientific study to set priorities on which reefs can be protected, and for work to obtain and preserve seed banks of species to be maintained far into the future. But it will also include a major emphasis on communicating the severity of the problem.

This project is important not just for dealing with the coral issue but also for demonstrating to environmental grant makers and advocates that it’s wise to put money into projects that persuade the American people to demand action to arrest global climate change.

No longer lnvisible

For those of us who lack scuba-diving certification, the vast expanse of collapsing reefs has been an invisible problem—until now.

Central to the 50 Reefs project is Chasing Coral, a powerful new documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski, who previously made the Emmy Award-winning film Chasing Ice.
Chasing Coral, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired by Netflix, explores the tragic collapse of coral reefs around the world: in the Florida Keys, around the Hawaiian Islands, and most significantly on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

According to the film, which was supported by Tiffany and the Kendeda Fund, the amount of coral that perished last year in the Great Barrier Reef alone would be comparable to all the trees from the District of Columbia to Maine dying off. The first challenge for Mr. Orlowski and his team lay in how to record such an epic event. They spent hundreds of hours in the water, meticulously photographing the process as the largest animal life form in the world passed away in front of their lenses.

Pictured in the documentary as never before, the end of a coral can be a brilliant and heartbreaking event, as it responds to life-threatening heat by creating a colorful protective covering. As one of the film’s characters notes, the corals fluoresce in “the most vivid colors I’ve ever seen. You feel as if the coral is saying, ‘Look at me. Please notice.’ ”
With moments like these, Chasing Coral strikes a deep chord in the viewer, which explains why the film won the Audience Award for documentaries at Sundance. It also shows why it is likely to be a very influential film in coming months as it gains a wider audience.

Chasing a congressman

In Chasing Ice, Mr. Orlowski captured the harrowing exploits of nature photographer James Balog, who battled extreme elements to document the epic scale of climate change’s impact, revealing shrinking polar ice and retreating glaciers. Most famously, the film shows an expanse of glacial ice the size of Manhattan suddenly shearing off, heaving over, and tumbling into the sea.

The point of that film was to overcome any lingering sense of doubt that climate change is destroying key foundations of the environment. Beyond the documentary itself, the Chasing Ice team, with money from the Kendeda Fund and other donors, organized an intensive outreach campaign, seeking to prove that you can have an impact on the public debate by reaching and persuading key decision makers about the urgent need to solve big problems.

For example, the filmmakers went to the Ohio district of Rep. Pat Tiberi and worked with religious and civic leaders to organize special screenings in churches, town halls, and other locations, inviting audiences to share messages of concern with the congressman.

Before the screenings were held, Mr. Tiberi, a Republican, had expressed doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change. But, responding to his constituents, he eventually acknowledged the problem, stating, “I would like to see us address climate change in a balanced manner, on as broad a front as possible.”

Netflix and beyond

Scholars believe such approaches have the best chance to influence public policy in our era. In the spring issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, University of Florida researchers Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand suggest that “social-change activists need to use behavioral science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.”

Ms. Christiano and Ms. Neimand cite the Ohio campaign for Chasing Ice as a particularly effective effort, noting how it tapped into faith, family, friend, and neighborhood networks to spur Rep. Tiberi’s constituents: “By working with influencers in these traditionally skeptical communities, the campaign was able to reach a new audience and saw success in shifting climate beliefs.”

For Chasing Coral, Mr. Orlowski’s distribution deal with Netflix offers an opportunity to reach many of the company’s nearly 100 million subscribers. Even so, he plans to return to intensive local advocacy drives, working with civic leaders — particularly in Florida, a state facing devastation from climate change over the next two decades — to reach and persuade people who can influence national policy.

“Community screenings are the linchpin for all of this,” Mr. Orlowski said, speaking to a group of foundation officials at Sundance. “If the messages come from tree huggers, it’s not as effective as when the messages come from farmers and fishermen.”

Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a regular Chronicle columnist. This piece originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on March 2, 2017.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.