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Avoiding Penguin Politics in Antarctica

Jonathan Shopley | 03 March 2014 |

Jonathan Shopley prepares for his expedition to one of the last untouched wildernesses and considers two people who are delivering a long-term compelling vision of creating a stable climate and sustainable future.

I have just returned from The Climate Leadership Conference in San Diego. An inspiring three days, crammed full of updates from the front-line trenches of political and corporate action on climate change. However, no matter how hard we squinted into the bright San Diego sunlight, it was hard to see whether we are on course to a stable climate and a sustainable future. But two people have dug themselves out of the trenches and are working on a long-term compelling vision of what success really could look like, and I’m thrilled to report on their positive and inspiring work.

While on vacation in deeply snowed-in Wheeling, West Virginia, I had the perfect opportunity to get into Jonathon Porritt’s recently published, “The World We Made: Alex McCay’s story from 2050”. However, just as I settled down with book in hand, an email pinged with the subject line: “An interesting opportunity for you!” It looked like the kind of thing that should go straight to junk but had negotiated all the spam filters, so I opened it: an invitation to join an expedition to Antarctica – well worth an exclamation mark.

The invitation was from “2041”, an organisation set-up by Robert Swan, the first adventurer-explorer to walk to both North and South Poles. Swan set up 2041 to raise awareness on climate change and the effect it will have on Antarctica, our largest largely untouched wilderness area. Why 2041? Because that is the earliest year the Treaty of Antarctica can be renegotiated, potentially ending the moratorium on anything other than scientific research in the fifth largest continent.

I first came across Robert & 2041 when his team took a polar yacht to the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 to highlight their mission to remove and recycle 1,500 tonnes of waste left after decades of scientific research in the Antarctic. The rubbish was finally cleared and the native penguins reclaimed their beach for the first time in 47 years. After the cleanup, a small, disused scientists' station on King George Island was turned into an "E-base" – the world's first education station in Antarctica.

Might 2041 fall into the trap of what US Senator Lindsay Graham poignantly called ‘Polar-bear Politics’ – critiquing how the plight of fluffy animals in far-away places is sometimes used to deflect attention from the economic impact of climate change policies at home? Sitting in West Virginia, once a leading area for coal and steel, presented a vivid example of how parts of the US are struggling to re-invent themselves as the assault on fossil fuels chokes the economic livelihood across the State. However, 2041’s long-term vision is simple and clear: to promote rapid adoption of renewable energy so that when we get to 2041 there won’t be pressure to open the area up to exploration for fossil fuels. It’s certainly not about ‘Penguin Politics’.

To build support for its goal, 2041 gathers around 100 young leaders from around the world for an annual expedition to Antarctica to inspire them to take action, exert influence and provide leadership throughout their careers. I will join the expedition as one of four speakers, including Robert, to talk about climate change, leadership, sustainability and taking personal action. My brief is to cover sustainability over three sessions during the two week expedition, which presents a challenge: how to cover that nebulous subject for a very diverse group of expedition members?

I was holding part of the answer in my hands. Jonathon Porritt’s “The World We Made” takes the same long-view. It’s the story of a positive transition to a sustainable economy narrated in around 50 chapters by high-school teacher Alex McKay from the vantage point of 2050. He tells the story of how we got from where we are today (in a pretty bad way, environmentally) to a much better place in the future. Alex's story charts the key events, technology breakthroughs and lifestyle revolutions that make the world what it is mid-century. Inevitably, there are lots of 'shocks to the system' along the way - caused by accelerating climate change, threats to food supplies and so on. Those shocks massively reinforce the case for radical changes - which come thick and fast from 2018 onwards. It’s a positive, optimistic, grounded and entertaining read. A rare combination in this field.

Throughout my West Virginia vacation, we’d been talking a lot about these societal shifts during our egg-nog fuelled debates about the state of the nation. We’d been wondering how it was that Pittsburg, less than an hour away from rusting Wheeling, had re-imagined and transformed itself from Steel City to ‘Most livable City’ in the space of a few decades. ‘The World We Made’ profiles what that sort of transformation could look like on a global scale by developing scenarios for climate change; agriculture food and water; transport; energy; manufacturing and others. It’s a rich book, covering a diverse range of crucial topics that can be dipped into at random to get a sense of the transformation that’s both possible, and required. So, inspired by both Robert and Jonathon’s different but congruent visions of a future that is ours to make, I have drafted out my ‘lectures’, assembled my thermals, boots, gloves and parkas, and am counting down to the first leg of the journey which begins later this week when I join the expedition in Ushuaia, Argentina. I look forward to blogging along the way – for as much as our on-board connections allow - and reporting on what I learn from the inspiring group of people who will be my fellow-travelers.

Image 1 - 2041 International Antarctic Expedition 2014 brochure

Image 2 - Alasdair Davies / ZSL.