We spoke with polar explorer, environmentalist, and the first man ever to walk unsupported to both the North and South Poles. Read on to hear him describe the wonder and awe of the poles, why he considers Antarctica a hopeful place, and why he has committed to return to the South Pole 30 years after his first expedition.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
Tell us what you’ve seen during your decades of exploration, and the wonder and the awe of the poles.
Robert Swan: I’ve seen the beauty of these last great true wildernesses left on Earth. I focus mainly on Antarctica because Antarctica is truly the last United Nations place on the planet, because no one owns it – we all own it. Every single person on the planet has a piece of Antarctica the size of a football pitch, if you divide the number of people on Earth into the area of Antarctica. We all have a responsibility for it.
Walking to both poles and being the first person on Earth stupid enough to walk to both poles, you connect with these places that are literally made of ice – 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of the world’s fresh water. And you get that feeling that if that melts, it’s game over. We swim, big time.
So I went to the South and North Pole because it went down well with girls at parties, you know. I didn’t do this for any sort of “save the planet” reason, but it’s what I experienced there that brought me to where I am now. What I experienced was, at the South Pole, walking under a hole in the ozone layer with my eyes burnt out and face fried off, and at the North Pole, the ice caps melted.
I was given a mission by Jacques Cousteau, he gave me a 50-year mission called 2041, and we’re 25 years into that. Let’s focus on Antarctica – Antarctica is worth saving, it’s the last true wilderness. It is a place that is for science and peace.
And maybe all these damn questions that we ask ourselves about climate change, maybe the answers to these questions are in the ice caps of the Antarctic.
You call Antarctica a ‘hopeful place.’ Why do you call it that?
Because no one owns it, and we could save it. Because no one owns it. And how we save it is quite simple – you first have people who can vote in 2041 – 25 years from now, people just like you. How I do that is by taking people just like you to Antarctica, and I might say more women than men, because women last longer than men when it comes to sustainability, and women from amazingly different countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, all over the Middle East, Myamar – all these places, because this is a global issue, it’s not American or British or whatever. So I take young people down there, I give them some inspiration about why it’s worth saving, and give them the stories so they can go out and do the job.
Secondly, I’m a renewable energy champion and tester. Why? Because if we get that right here, and drive down the cost of renewable energy – wind, solar, different types – there’s no one who’s going to bother to go to Antarctica, it’s a really long way away and it will cost a stackload of money to go there. So that’s how we’ll save it – young people, and using more renewable energy here.
So that was all going really well, and then suddenly NASA, who I work with a lot, and who measure things, they just measure stuff said that there’s a much bigger issue in Antarctica with ice shelves melting which will release more ice into the ocean, Nature did a very big article on this recently.
And I thought ‘Young people don’t want any more information, they want inspiration.’
So it’s time to walk again, which wasn’t part of the plan originally. So thirty years on, since walking to the South Pole, I’m going back with my son, who is 21, at the end of next year to make a very big journey, only surviving on renewable energy. It’s never been done, and NASA are helping me with that technology. And the purpose is to say to young people, ‘You can do something.’ Because a lot of your people who read your stuff – and you know it – are going ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what are we supposed to do?’ You don’t need a list of 500 things to do. We’re going to inspire young people, mainly through my son, because they’ll listen to him not me, to say, ‘Hey, you can do this, this, this, and this, and we’re out here testing it across the ice caps which are melting. So that, in a sense, is what we do in a place that is truly awe and wonder. It really is. It is the most spectacular, beautiful place. People view Antarctica as black and white, it’s not. It’s the most stunning place.
You’re here to address hundreds at the One Young World Environment Summit. What is your call to action for young people?
I don’t like calls to action because they don’t work.
I would say ‘change.’ Stop pretending that you’re doing something about it and actually change, because the way we are isn’t sustainable.
You can’t just talk about it and say this is what we need to do. We actually need to change and think about the energy that we use, and the energy that we have. You can be inspired and be hopeful, but you have to make a change. Quite a lot of change, actually.”
Photo: Sunrise over Antarctica | Photo Credit: 2041 Foundation