Robert Swan And His Son Barney On Embracing Adventure, Fighting Climate Change And Braving Polar Expeditions
According to Nasa, the year 2020 rivalled 2016 for the title of the warmest year on record. “We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of three to five degrees celsius this century,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres before adding that unprecedented weather extremes are being seen in every region and on every continent. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere.”
For celebrated British polar explorer Robert Swan and his 26-year-old son Barney, fighting climate change has long been a priority, if not a life mission.
Robert spearheads a 50-year mission to preserve Antarctica through his 2041 Foundation, where efforts include organising educational expeditions for leaders of all kinds—both current and future—to the planet’s southernmost continent. A firm believer in recycling and renewable energy, he regularly engages with businesses and communities to promote climate science and sustainable practices. Last December, he was invited to speak at the Global Green Economic Forum's Women Eco Game Changer Awards, which recognised female innovators and leaders in sustainability and environment in Asia including Dr Noryawati Mulyono of PT Seaweedtama Biopac and Sahar Mansoor of Bare Necessities.
Robert is also the first person to walk both the North and South Poles.
Barney, too, possesses the same adventurous streak as his father. In 2017, he became the first person to walk the South Pole powered only by renewable energy. Robert was also part of the 600-mile expedition, the South Pole Energy Challenge—through which he and Barney wanted to show the potential of renewable energy, even in the world’s most inhospitable environment—but he had to drop out midway after dislocating his hip.
That same year, Barney also started his own environmental organisation, ClimateForce, which is headquartered in the town of Mossman, Queensland, Australia.
The non-profit is driven by a mission to reduce 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2025. It focuses on promoting environmental action through education and the innovation of sustainable development solutions.
One of its major ongoing efforts is Tropical Regen, a biodiversity protection and restoration initiative. Under it, Barney and his team are currently working on a pilot project in Australia to regenerate a rainforest corridor in the Daintree, the oldest rainforest system in the world.
Robert and Barney Swan tell us more here about their environmental journeys and goals, as well as their next big polar adventure, Undaunted: Southpole 2022.
Barney, you grew up watching your father work passionately as an environmental advocate. How did he influence who you’ve become today?
Barney Swan My father has imbued many lessons on me over the years, whether it's teaching me to rock climb or telling me to get on with it even when I’m fearful of the situation. But one of the biggest lessons he’s taught me is persistence and how when in doubt, persistence will win.
As part of the younger generation of environmental advocates, what opportunities do you see that can help to propel climate action?
Barney I think cross-generational collaboration is important because sometimes, young people exhibit an arrogance where they think they have the innovation and all the answers. In response, the older people feel frustrated because these younger people are being so arrogant.
I think that if you're 16 years old, for instance, you have an obligation to teach the seven-year-olds and five-year-olds about the basic environmental stuff, while also working with people in their 80s and 90s.
I love working with my father because we are such different people. We listen to each other and learn from each other, and we agree to disagree occasionally. But we always try to find that middle ground.
What made you start ClimateForce?
Barney I wanted to help make sustainability and each of our roles in it accessible. I wanted to show that environmental action isn’t only something rich people can afford.
There are so many opportunities to be engaged, to better manage our waste and energy, to take more responsibility for our carbon dioxide emissions. Climate change is a global problem, but we need to make it local as well—and come up with practical, accessible local solutions. And that is my major reason for working hard with ClimateForce.
See also: How Youth Activists Melati And Isabel Wijsen Are Creating A Global Headquarters For Young Changemakers
One of the biggest lessons my father's taught me is persistence and how when in doubt, persistence will win
— Barney Swan
Robert, is there an argument against climate change that you’re tired of hearing?
Robert Swan There are people saying that climate change is much worse than it is and others who believe it's not happening at all. Speak to Barney’s grandmother—my mother—who’s 105 years old and ask her if the climate has changed in her life. It has. I think the issue is, are we causing it or not? Gut feeling tells me we are. For anybody saying we aren’t, I say I hope you're right.
It's important that we don’t attack others who doubt that climate change is happening or don't want to accept that it is. We need to be fully aware that people need inspiration and hope, rather than negativity surrounding the whole issue of climate change and sustainability.
What are some urgent facts about the state of the Arctic and Antarctica today?
Robert Everybody is pretty much aware of the fact that the Arctic sea ice is melting. Thirty years ago, we could walk across the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole. But in 2019, Barney, myself and a team were up there on a ship. When we looked out over the ocean, there was no ice to be seen.
What people are less aware of is what's happening in Antarctica. Let's get this clear: Antarctica holds 90 percent of the world's ice and 70 percent of the world's freshwater. If we melted the whole of Antarctica, the sea level around the world would rise in excess of 300 to 500 feet.
We always thought that Antarctica wasn't changing as rapidly, but NASA has informed us that Antarctica and the ice shelves are melting and disintegrating faster than we originally thought. I think about five years ago, Barney and I experienced one of its hottest days ever recorded—the temperature was 17.5 degrees Celsius. We should listen to what Antarctica is trying to tell us. And if we don't listen, it will come and get us.
How did you feel hearing the news of the coronavirus reaching the last untouched continent, Antarctica, last December?
Robert It was sad, of course, but it was also going to happen. Barney and I happen to know exactly where that happened and it was on King George Island, off the coast of Antarctica, where we had built an education station running only on renewable energy. There are flights servicing all kinds of scientific stations there and the coronavirus came in on a flight from Chile, but it was contained at the Chilean station. People often fly in and out of Antarctica from a city in Chile called Punta Arenas, and that place is having a pretty rough time with the Covid-19 right now. So yeah, it was going to happen.
I feel that the whole coronavirus situation has much to do with people’s discipline. If there's one thing that Barney and I have learnt on our journeys, it’s that you start a journey to the South Pole with a lot of discipline. You know that if you don't eat, sleep or wear your clothes properly, you will get injured because you're in a place where it's -40 degrees Celsius and it'll get you. But human nature is such that our discipline, especially for me, can slack off a bit after a while.
When I saw Covid-19 reaching Antarctica, I thought that we as a world have become so ill-disciplined in some places about the risks we face. Yes, this problem will eventually end, but it will end a lot faster if we maintain the discipline.
See also: In A Country Where Environmental Activism Can Cost You Your Life, One Campaigner Is Using The Power Of Storytelling To Effect Change
Barney, could you share more about your Tropical Regen initiative?
Barney Our primary objectives are biodiversity protection and reducing carbon emissions, but fundamentally, we want to create solutions that are trustworthy and authentic. There's so much greenwashing going on in conservation, land management, plastic recycling and so on that it is causing some level of distrust for conservation and sustainability efforts in general.
I want to be part of creating a model that has trustworthy data and outcomes, and is working with real and everyday folk, whether it's a farmer, teacher or scientist.
Robert If I might jump in here, Barney, and say what you'd never say. I think it's fairly remarkable that a 26-year-old is doing all of this and on his own, too. So if anything, I hope what Barney is doing inspires a generation that feels helpless [in this fight against climate change]. He shows that you can create [change].
Barney Thanks Dad, I appreciate that. Of course, there are moments when I really just want to go for a hike or stop working and watch Netflix. But like what we said about persistence earlier, if you want to achieve something, you have to work hard and make certain sacrifices. Of course, don’t do this at the expense of your physical and mental health.
I believe that the last great exploration left on Earth is to actually survive on Earth
— Robert Swan
In 2017, the both of you walked 600 miles to the South Pole powered only by renewable energy. What were some of the best memories you took home?
Barney Well, just being able to do this with Dad, supporting him, learning from him and walking next to him; to see and understand what he did before in the 80s, walking to the South Pole without a radio for hundreds of miles. Being able to live and experience that moment in history with him is hugely powerful.
A moment I’ll never forget is when we had to say goodbye midway through the journey, due to Dad’s injury. I remember him telling me that his blood runs in me and feeling so much support from him. The moment when he had to let me go, it was a beautiful moment, but also a hard moment. And I'll never forget the big hug he gave me.
What will be the next expedition for the both of you?
Barney For the long-term, Dad and I are planning some big sailing trips over the next decade, which will have sustainability, educational and research-based outcomes. In between, we're going to do some good sailing and we're excited to be out in the open ocean together.
In the short term, we're heading back to Antarctica this November for a leadership and sustainability programme with a group of business people, students, entrepreneurs, artists and teachers from around the world. We’re really excited to deliver some key outcomes for not only land regeneration and renewable energy, but also commitments for businesses, schools and families to make them get their act together and become more sustainable.
Robert This expedition in November will also mark the 20 years that’s left in the 2041 Foundation’s 50-year mission to preserve Antarctica.
After that, I'll be going back with Barney to complete the 97 miles I didn’t manage to back in 2017. And when we are 60 miles from the Pole, we'll be joined by a team of wounded [army] veterans, who I think really represent the idea of resilience in life.
Like them, we need to be resilient to protect Antarctica 20 years down the road in 2041, we need to be resilient to see this time out with Covid-19, and we need to be resilient to ensure that people not born yet have a pretty decent life on this planet.
Barney For anyone out there who thinks you’re mad for deciding to go back for more punishment, will you tell that you’re going to feel a sense of relief and calm when you’re finally standing at that Pole?
Robert I hope so, but you know very well that calm is not really part of your father's character. But I'm working on it, and thanks to you for helping me. It’s a mission that started when I was 11 years old, after watching a movie about real-life explorers, and I'm going to be 65 years old when I reach that Pole. So it’ll almost feel like a part of my life will end then.
See also: Rumah Group's Kathlyn Tan On Following In Her Father's Footsteps And Building A Responsible Business
Robert, what is it about embracing adventure and all of its rewards and challenges that has made you who you are today?
Robert I do believe that the last great exploration left on Earth is to actually survive on Earth. It's really important that people understand that. Possibly one of the hardest things I’ve had to do is not walking to the Poles, but raising the money in order to walk to them or keeping the motivation going to keep going in this work for nearly 40 years.
It’s not easy to sustain all of this. But what I've learnt from all these years, too, is that when you have a dream or a vision, you damn well stick to it, because people will support you if they feel you're authentic and genuine in what you say you want to achieve.
Finally, Barney, what kind of a world do you hope to leave behind for the next generation?
Barney I would say a world where we understand the source of everything. I hope we have a deeper acknowledgement of how we all share one big ecosystem with other animals and species. If we treat [these other inhabitants] with disrespect or screw them up, we may end up not having pollinators and trees and healthy water systems. Regardless of your creed, salary bracket, ideology or religion, we share all of these things.
I also want to leave behind a world where we give more than we take, whether it's to nature or communities. At least when I get to my grandmother’s age and I’m on my rocking chair, I want to feel relaxed knowing that I’ve done everything I could to try to not allow our planet to go down the drain.
Read more articles on Climate Change.