Interviews - September 14, 2018

"Antarctica is the memory of our planet", interview with Robert Swan


Written by Tristan Lebleu 3 min read

You have been on countless expeditions to both Poles for the past 30 years. What have these expeditions taught you?

Personally, these expeditions have taught me the importance of having dreams and hope. What I learnt by becoming the first person crazy enough to walk to both poles is that if you really do have a dream, you can make it happen. Just like Bertrand Piccard and his dream of flying around the world in a solar airplane, I held on to my dream, even though it seemed impossible. You might have to adapt it, but the essence of the dream is something you should hold on to.

Then, from an environmental perspective, these expeditions have made me realize that we need to listen to what nature is telling us. The North and South Poles are like the canary in the mine (miners used to carry caged canaries while at work. If there was any methane or carbon monoxide in the mine, the canary would die before the levels of the gas reached those hazardous to humans). The melting of the Arctic and Antarctica is a very sure indication that climate change is happening. And it’s happening fast. In 1987, 31 years ago, I walked to the North Pole. Today, the same journey would be impossible because of ice melting. These places are telling us to listen but unfortunately, not enough people are paying attention to this issue.

How did it all begin?

27 years ago, after I had walked to the North and South Poles, I was given a mission by Jacques Cousteau, the patron of my expedition. He asked me to dedicate to the preservation of the Poles. He understood that the exploitation and mining in the Arctic would be impossible to stop because it is owned. Whereas, the Antarctic is not owned by anybody but governed by a Treaty (The Madrid Treaty), therefore it can still be protected. That moratorium, signed in 1991 and which designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, will be reopen for negotiation in 2041.

Why is Antarctica so important to you?

Antarctica is the memory of our planet. Every layer of snow and ice can give us very precise information on climate change and human activities. We know climate change is happening. But we’re still not sure how much we’re causing it. So let’s not screw with our memory!

How do you aim to protect Antarctica?

I started the 2041 Foundation, a non-profit organization with two main goals. 

First of all, we focus on education. Who will be voting when the Madrid Protocol will reopen for negotiation in 23 years from now? Today’s youth! So we take teams of young people on expeditions to the South Pole, we show them what’s happening there, and we teach them how to become better leaders in their communities. So far, we’ve taken over 4000 young leaders from around the world and we’ve tried to inspire them to protect it. I hope that in 23 years from now (in 2041), I can call these people, when they will be CEOs of big companies or NGOs, or political leaders, and I call tell them “It’s time to help me save Antarctica!”.

On another level, through the 2041 Foundation, we promote the use of clean technologies that can help us drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases. Because if people start using these technologies, it will drive down their cost, and eventually it just won’t make any financial sense to exploit Antarctica’s resources. To promote clean technologies, we were very much inspired by Bertrand’s adventure. My son, Barney and I, wanted to show that renewable energy can be used everywhere so we decided to undertake the first ever polar expedition to survive solely on renewable energy. With the help of Nasa, we developed solar ice melters and amazing technologies which allowed us to walk 600 miles for 60 days without a single drop of fossil fuel.

What will be your next expedition?

During our last expedition with my son Barney, I had to stop halfway through for medical reasons. My hip was disintegrating. I’ve had a hip surgery since then, and at the end of 2019, I’m going back to finish the 300 miles to complete the journey. But this time, not only do I want to do it with renewable energy, I also want to focus on new materials. I believe one of the biggest challenges when talking about clean solutions, is that people can’t touch them, can’t feel them, they can’t use them. They usually think it’s all for big companies. But that’s not true. There are plenty of solutions that people could use in their everyday lives. So for our expedition in 2019 “The Last 300”, I’ll be working with the Solar Impulse Foundation to get as many material solutions, such as a mattress made out of CO2, or a tent made of recycled plastic, etc…

How are you involved with the Solar Impulse Foundation?

I have been given a mission by Bertrand Piccard: participate in the #1000solutions challenge by finding breakthrough technologies that can protect the environment while being economically profitable, and to identify experts to assess these solutions.


Written by Tristan Lebleu on September 14, 2018

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