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Polar Explorer Takes Clean Energy Campaign to Copenhagen

  • Rosanne Skirble

Having witnessed signs of global warming in Antarctica, polar explorer Robert Swan has dedicated his life to saving the fragile wilderness

Having witnessed signs of global warming in Antarctica, polar explorer Robert Swan has dedicated his life to saving the fragile wilderness

Among the many activists at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit is polar explorer Robert Swan, whose life story carries an environmental message that he hopes can help save the planet.

Even as a child, Robert Swan knew he wanted to be an explorer when he grew up. By 1989, at age 33, he'd achieved that goal, becoming the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles. Swan says his early mentors instilled in him a simple environmental ethic that has guided him through life:"That was that at the end of our expeditions, we would always leave wherever we went, clean and tidy, take away our garbage, take away everything, just leave our footsteps."

Making a promise to protect

A promise fulfilled: The cleanup of 1,500 tons of debris from a Russian station on Bellingshausen Beach King George Island, Antarctica

A promise fulfilled: The cleanup of 1,500 tons of debris from a Russian station on Bellingshausen Beach King George Island, Antarctica

Swan did that and more. As he gained experience on his first expeditions, he developed a talent for raising money and hiring accomplished guides who could teach him. But trekking into the wilderness, even for seasoned explorers, can be risky business. Swan remembers a pact he made one very cold day en route to the South Pole. "And I went out of the tent, and I said to Antarctica, 'Look, don't kill us. And if you don't kill us I'll do my best to protect you.'"

Swan has kept the promise, his eyes opened to environmental problems made worse by a warming climate. "We walked across ice caps that were melting, even 20 years ago at the North Pole. We'd seen garage and rubbish at both poles. But the really important thing we saw by 1992 was that people were not really engaged at all on this issue."

Robert Swan trucked a sailboat overland in Africa to raise awareness about the environment and HIV/AIDS

Robert Swan trucked a sailboat overland in Africa to raise awareness about the environment and HIV/AIDS



Swan set out to change that. Invited to speak to world leaders at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 he outlined a plan. First, he had 1,500 tons of debris removed from a Russian field station in Antarctica. Then he trucked a sailboat through South Africa, coordinating that journey with the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. "It was all to do with inspiring kids to care about the environment, care about themselves and looking after themselves."

At the Johannesburg summit, Swan pledged to focus his efforts on protecting Antarctica from mineral or oil exploitation when treaty obligations are renewed in 2041. "What we've got to do is to make sure that in the year 2041 that we are not stupid enough as a world to go to Antarctica, which is not owned by anybody, and exploit it for fossil fuels." To promote that mission Swan has just published an autobiography in which he writes passionately about the importance of a clean energy agenda.

Backing up the promise with 2041

The 2041 sails by Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco en route to its global tour which runs through 2012

The 2041 sails by Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco en route to its global tour which runs through 2012

He's also founded an organization called 2041. Among its many initiatives 2041 offers an annual leadership training voyage for students, entrepreneurs and teachers to Antarctica. In 2008 the group launched a five-year global tour of a specially-designed sailboat with the date "2041" emblazoned on its side. With a solar powered sail and using the sun and wind to power the batteries, the purpose of the mission is to show that renewable energy works.

Robert Swan says he is bringing to Copenhagen that same spirit that led him to the North and South Poles twenty years ago. He says he is proud of what he's achieved, but believes his job has just begun. "I'm on year 18 of 2041. We've got 32 years to go and I won't back up easily."

Swan is optimistic that humans can take the necessary collective steps to address climate change and put the brakes on global warming. On the 2041 website he writes: "For the future's sake we can get this right. And we must."

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