When you stare into Robert Swan’s face, you will see one that has really weathered the storms, so to speak.
Besides lines and wrinkles, the 62-year-old’s eyes are now a pale blue, courtesy of being directly exposed to ultraviolet rays in Antarctica as he walked to the South Pole back in the 1980s.
In fact, Swan has been labelled “mad” for doing that expedition – and another to the North Pole later – but he would sooner deal with that than do nothing after witnessing the destruction of nature due to climate change.
“I am the first person, stupid enough, to walk to both poles,” said Swan in his keynote address at the recent KWAP Inspire: Environmental Conference 2018 held in Kuala Lumpur, as the audience broke out in laughter.
“After that, you are sure of four things – first, I am done with walking. Second, at minus 77° Celsius, your sweat turns to ice inside your clothing and let me tell you that I don’t enjoy ice in my underpants!” continued Swan.
No insurance company would give him life cover for his expedition either.
“You also realise that our world is dominated by a lot of negative news. Why? Because it’s very easy to be negative,” he said. “But you can’t achieve anything by being negative.”
Swan’s interest in polar exploration first began when he was 11. He was inspired by the story of the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” (1895 -1917) and the race to the South Pole between Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen.
At age of 20, he decided to pursue his dream but needed to raise US$5mil (RM20mil) for his mission, a feat he finally achieved after seven long years.
His 1,450km (900miles) journey to the South Pole was named “In the Footsteps of Scott”, after Robert Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition in the early 20th century.
The expedition, which Swan did together with Roger Mear and Gareth Wood, stands as the longest unassisted walk ever made in history.
“We walked for 70 days, nine hours a day, carrying 180kg each. There was no radio communications with the outside world and you are navigating only using the sun, sextant and a watch,” recalled Swan, who has served as a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Youth and Special Envoy to the Director General of Unesco.
During the expedition, Swan lost 33kg and the colour of his eyes changed from dark blue to a pale blue, due to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays coming through the hole in the ozone layer, which they were directly beneath. The skin on his face also blistered off.
On Jan 11, 1986, they finally stood at the South geographical pole, only to find out that their 42m ship, Southern Quest, had sunk five minutes before they arrived. They eventually returned a year later to clean up the wreckage.
Then, in 1989, Swan and his team decided to walk to the North Pole. They got there on May 14 after 60 days, but not before a team member lost the heel of his foot to frostbite and the group faced near disaster due to the premature melting of Arctic ice.
“To walk across a melting ocean of ice, a thousand kilometres away from the safety of land is without doubt, the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me. The ice was melting and crashing down. Back then we had to march, or die,” said Swan, to a rapt audience.
At the age of 33, Swan created history by becoming the world’s first person to walk to both the North and South Poles.
French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau and Sir Peter Scott, founder of the World Wildlife Fund, were Swan’s patrons for the polar walks.
After his return, they gave Swan one challenge – to use his story to preserve Antarctica.
Having experienced first-hand the effects of climate change, he willingly took up a 50-year mission to preserve earth’s southern-most continent by promoting recycling, renewable energy and sustainability.
“Antarctica is the last great wilderness, twice the size of Australia. It constitutes 4,500m of solid ice, holds 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of the world’s freshwater. If we continue to melt that, we swim,” warned Swan.
Swan then founded the organisation called 2041 to achieve his goal.
The year 2041 is when the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits any drilling and mining in the continent, could potentially be changed.
“People want to go there for fossil fuel and we want to make it not worth going there financially by promoting renewable energy use,” he emphasised.
Since 2003, Swan and his team have been making annual expeditions to the Antarctic, taking along students, youth leaders and people who want to make a difference to witness the effects of climate change. To date, they have taken over 3,500 people from all over the world on 22 polar expeditions.
In line with his dedication to recycling and to keeping Antarctica pristine, Swan and a team of people also spent eight years raising funds and executing a special mission – to remove and fully recycle 1,500 tonnes of steel waste left over after years of scientific research.
When the waste was finally cleared at the Russian base of Bellingshausen, King George Island, penguins walked onto the beach, reclaiming it for the first time in 47 years.
“If we can spend eight years cleaning up 1,500 tonnes of steel, I think you can lift up your arm, pick up that aluminium can, and put it in the recycling bin,” said Swan at a TEDGlobal 2014 Talk.
In March 2008, Swan created history again by living solely on renewable energy at the E-Base – the world’s first Antarctic renewable energy education station – for over two weeks. His message: “If this is possible in the harsh Antarctic climate, surely it is possible in the real world.”
On Jan 15 this year, Swan and his son Barney completed the first-ever expedition to the South Pole powered solely by clean energy technologies known as the South Pole Energy Challenge, or SPEC.
Right after that, they launched the Climate Force Challenge, which has a seven-year goal to clean up 326 million tonnes of CO2 before 2025 to meet the goals of the 2016 United Nation’s Paris Agreement to hold global temperatures below two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
“Our effort is to really say that everybody can make a difference, and we want everyday people to be a part of something that (truly) makes a difference.
“We are not interested in offsetting but more interested in cleaning up. For (my son) Barney and I, that’s our mission for the next seven years,” he said.
“I am not a true explorer, a scientist nor an environmentalist. In fact, I hate that word! I am a survivor, who acts to stay alive and do the right thing because if not, somebody else pays the price. We are all on a journey and that journey is about the survival of our species on good ol’ planet Earth,” he stressed.
Swan believes that more effort needs to be put into environmental protection.
“We need to do more than what we are doing, because people will look back on us and say we knew, we had all the information but we didn’t do enough.
“And I would not like to feel that I hadn’t tried hard enough, and I know my son feels the same about that.”
In June 2019, Swan will return to the Arctic (ClimateForce: Arctic 2019 expedition) with Barney and lead a group of over 80 explorers from all over the world. To find out more about his work and 2041, go to www.2041.com.