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‘Survivor’ urges island to take lead on climate change

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Robert Swan

Whatever you do, don’t call Robert Swan an explorer.

The 60-year-old, who holds the distinction of being the first man to walk to both the North and South Poles, prefers the word survivor.

“I’m not an explorer and I’m not an environmentalist and I’m too stupid to be a scientist,” the British adventurer said.

“But do you know what I’m good at? Staying alive. I’m a damn good survivor.

“And a survivor does not see perceived threats to our survival and do nothing about it.”

Mr Swan experienced first hand the effects of ultraviolet rays when he walked to the South Pole in 1986.

He then got a shock when he walked to the North three years later to find the ice had melted and left gaps in the firm ground.

As a result, he made it his mission to preserve Antarctica and combat the effects of climate change.

He was in Bermuda last week, invited by Land Rover BAR to share the “powerful” message he spreads through his company, 2041.

“I’ve visited the Maldives, I’ve visited places in the middle of the Pacific — the Marshall Islands — where people are packing up their homes with nowhere to go because the sea level has come in and taken over their homes,” he told Lifestyle after his talk.

“Bermuda has a really big opportunity and a responsibility to actually lead as an island nation on the whole issue of climate change, sea-level rise; sustainability. After hearing my story, you know it’s a reality. Climate change is happening. Every [weather] record is being broken. We can’t just sit back. What we have to understand is that this will affect us.

“This beautiful island could show leadership on this issue and I’d like to see that.”

Mr Swan’s stepmother, Baroness Sharples was the wife of Governor Richard Sharples when he was assassinated here in 1973.

“Her husband was sadly killed and she had the courage to continue as the proxy governor for a period of time — a very difficult time for Bermuda.

“I know she’s excited that I’ve come back to visit this great place.”

Everyone can make a difference, he said. The first step should be to call their energy provider and ask for green energy.

“The average person just has to put it on their agenda. That doesn’t mean to say that your energy comes from a solar panel that’s sat at the energy company. It could come from a solar panel in the middle of Arizona, but people can ask questions for a start.

“This is a sunny place. They should get more solar going in this country.

“The island could become entirely renewable energy run. You could have more electric cars. I think it needs commitment from people to say, let’s lead the world.

“The America’s Cup is attracting people to come here. Being sustainable, having a great image on the environment, doing the right things, will attract people to come here [as well]. It’s not just saving the planet, it’s actually business.”

People should become more open to “unsightly” wind farms and make small changes such as reducing meat consumption. “It’s not that complicated,” he said. “Everyday people can make a difference. Have some targets.”

His targets include a “50-year mission” based on a promise made to Jacques Cousteau. He named 2041 for the scheduled renegotiation of moratorium on mining in Antarctica.

“In 2041, the treaty that preserves Antarctica for us all can stop. [Jacques] said, ‘Robert, get out there and make sure we have the sense to leave one place alone on Earth for ever’.”

As a child, he saw a film about the great explorers and dreamt of becoming a polar explorer.

He drove a taxi to fundraise his plan to be the first person to walk to both Poles; he heard the word “no” for years.

“Just like Ben [Ainslie] and the team, I held on to the dream,” he said.

He and his team’s 70-day journey to the South Pole became the longest unassisted walk in history.

“Nine hours a day, seven days a week, 70 days in a row — I lost 69lbs in body weight in 70 days to the pole,” Mr Swan recalled. “We crossed 6,000 crevasses.

“Something happened to me walking to the South Pole that changed everything. My eyes changed colour through damage. Our faces blistered off. We didn’t know why.

“When we got home, we were told by Nasa that we’d walked under the hole in the ozone layer the month it was discovered. So the ultraviolet rays came through, hit the ice, fried our eyes out, burnt our faces off.

“That started me thinking that maybe the issue of our survival on this tiny planet, in the middle of a universe that goes on for ever — maybe that survival wasn’t somebody else’s problem. Maybe I had some small part to play in it.”

That message was strengthened with the unique challenges of the North Pole. He and his team walked 40-hour stretches to get through the broken ground.

“Often to get by, you have to think way outside of what’s possible,” he said.

“Our world suffers from people knowing these problems and not knowing what to do about it.”

In the pursuit of another first, he will set off for the South Pole in November with his son Barney, powered solely by renewable technologies.

•Learn more at www.2041.com

Robert Swan (Photograph by Nadia Hall)
Robert Swan (Photograph by Nadia Hall)