Legendary polar explorer Robert Swan is the first person in history to walk to the North and South Pole and it marked a new phase in his life after seeing first-hand the impact of climate change. The South Pole expedition in 1986 was a 900-mile treacherous walk for 70 days with his team that nearly claimed their lives, and this led to his promise to the frozen world that surrounded them that he would repay her somehow in exchange for their safe passage home. Three years later, Swan and his team walked to the North Pole, another perilous journey when they nearly drowned due to the unseasonable melting of Arctic ice. This week, on May 14th, marks the 32nd anniversary when Swan reached the North Pole.
Swan’s inspiring and courageous story started as a dream after seeing a movie about Antarctica at the age of 11. His massive challenges, achievements, and contribution to education and the environment have been recognized through his appointment as UN Goodwill Ambassador for Youth, a Visiting Professorship of the School of Environment at Leeds University and in 1994 he became Special Envoy to the Director-General of UNESCO. He was also awarded the Polar Medal by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Swan founded the 2041 Foundation in 1984, an embodiment of the promise he made after his expedition to the South Pole which became a lifelong commitment to preserve the Antarctic as a natural reserve for science and peace. He inspires future generations of leaders to be responsible and realise ’it must be NOW’ that we act to influence the future development of policy and technology. His mission is to engage businesses and communities on climate science, personal leadership, and the promotion of sustainable practices, recycling, renewable energy, and sustainability to combat the effects of climate change.
Every year since 2003, Swan runs a once-in-a-lifetime expedition that possesses the power to transform lives. This annual expedition is dedicated to showing young leaders about the perils in their future, hoping that by sharing Antarctica’s spectacular and austere beauty, the younger generation will do whatever it takes to save her from plunder when they come into power in 2041. Swan’s Leadership on the Edge program uses real-life examples of the power of individuals working together to overcome obstacles, the importance of teamwork as an essential part of success, and what it takes to lead the fight against climate change. More than any other destination on earth, it’s the one place where they can see what is truly at stake in the war against a changing climate.
Antarctica isn’t owned by any one country; rather, it is governed internationally through the Antarctic Treaty System. Signed on 6th of December 1959 by the 12 countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty is aimed at ensuring Antarctica is used for “peaceful purposes” and international cooperation in scientific research; and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1991 prohibits the exploitation of mineral resources except for scientific purposes. 2041 is when the legislation protecting Antarctica from mining expires and the moratorium on mining activities is set to be renegotiated.
Antarctica is a continent whose future now hangs in the balance with some countries eager to explore mineral extraction on the 7th continent. Another threat looming ahead is how much Antarctica will melt if humans keep heating up the planet and how fast. This beautiful continent at the bottom of the Earth is home to the world’s largest land ice reservoir. The fate of Antarctica’s melting ice sheets is a major source of uncertainty when it comes to predicting sea-level rise and the threat facing the roughly 600 million people currently living in coastal areas across the globe.
In November 2017, the 61 years old Swan and his 23 years old son Barney led the world’s first clean energy-powered Antarctic expedition known as the South Pole Energy Challenge. A few weeks into the torturous 600 miles trek planned for 60 days, Swan realized he could not keep up with the 12-mile-a-day pace through the most inhospitable frozen nature and had to bow out in order for the expedition to succeed. For the last 60 miles, the tenacious Swan choppered back in to join his son and together they walked to the South Pole. Their goal was to show that if they could manage such an incredible feat while offsetting their carbon emissions, then the rest of us should also be able to make climate-conscious adjustments in our own lives.
In Swan’s own words: “The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it … and the last great exploration on earth is to survive on earth.”
One word that describes you?
What project are you most proud of when it comes to sustainability?
The South Pole Energy Challenge 2018 when my son Barney and I and two brave companions made the 1st South Pole journey on foot, surviving only on renewable energy.
Which is your favorite part of your job and which part do you enjoy the least?
Air travel is a favorite. Public speaking is a huge challenge.
What is your personal indulgence?
Mango Ice Cream.
What would you say to those who do little to nothing for the good of the environment?
I would apologise and say I am sorry that we have not inspired them and ask what we can do to engage them.
What is your personal favorite place to stay that’s trying hard to be accountable and transparent around sustainability with no greenwash allowed?
My tent in the Antarctic.
What legacy would you like to leave behind from your leadership?
That the Antarctic remains a continent for science and peace and should never be exploited.
Who is your greatest influence?
Barney, my son.
Your best advice to the young generations concerned about their future?
Don’t panic, when times are hard keep the focus and know that ’This will end’.
None so far.
View the NOW Changemaker Diary from Avani Awasthee from Pune, India who had been selected to join the “Leadership on the Edge” Program for the “International Antarctic Expedition” in 2016 and once again in 2018 with Rob Swan and his team, an exhilarating and a life-changing experience with 143 participants from 30 different nations across the globe.