If you were asked to walk to the North Pole with a support crew guiding you through shifting ice, freezing temperatures, giant pressure ridges and around icy pools of open water, do you think you could do it? A team of young people from around the world just did—and with style no less.
Greenpeace recently organized an expedition to the North Pole called "Project Aurora" in which four youth ambassadors together with a large support team traveled to the North Pole to highlight the dwindling ice in our Arctic region and to call for world leaders to protect the Arctic by declaring the terrain a global sanctuary, and to fight climate change.
As the sea ice melts, dirty energy companies are moving in to exploit the region's oil and stake claim to an area that belongs not to just one country or company, but to the entire world.
Campus Progress spoke with James Turner who heads communications for Greenpeace's Arctic campaign. He took part in the expedition which carried the names of nearly 3 million people who want to Save the Arctic into a time capsule which they lowered at the same spot in the Arctic where a submarine planted a Russian flag claiming the Arctic for Moscow. He's back from the top of the world and has a few things to say about the whole experience.
Campus Progress: Why go to the North Pole?
James Turner: I was lucky enough to be able to participate. I work for Greenpeace and we organized this trip to the North Pole which we had been planning for over a year as a promise to our supporters that if they gave us their name in support of our Arctic campaign, we would take those names to the North Pole, plant them on the seabed in a special capsule, all the way, four kilometers on the seabed.
So I was there as someone who could help tell the story to the outside world and make sure everyone was happy. I had lots of different roles, but the real stars of the show were the four young ambassadors who we took up there who didn't work for Greenpeace, but were all affected by what is happening in the Arctic in very different ways.
Who are the ambassadors?
Well, the first guy was Renny Bijoux who's from the Seychelles, and he's a member of the youth parliament there. The Seychelles is an island that is really at the forefront of climate change. It's really threatened by rising sea levels, and the predictions are that the coastlines and perhaps the entire island could disappear underwater if sea level keep rising at the rate they currently are. He was also telling me that cyclones and tropical storms were affecting the island far more frequently and severely than they ever have before which a lot of climate scientists think is a side effect of climate change affecting his part of the world. So even though the Arctic is thousands and thousands of miles away from his home, it has a direct bearing on his life, and actually, he has no voice formerly in the decision that are being made about the Arctic by the Arctic Council right now. He was there to tell that message and to say that people around the world have a stake in the Arctic.
We also had a woman called Kiera-Dawn Kolson who is a youth leader and indigenous person from the Northwest territory in Canada and she also works for Greenpeace, but she also has very strong links with indigenous communities. She was there to talk about the way in which those communities have been persecuted and driven out of their lands over the years and to reaffirm the importance of respecting their traditional subsistence way of life and fighting to protect that.
There was also another young woman called Josefina Skerk, and Josefina is from the Sami community in Northern Sweden, which is one of the oldest indigenous communities in the Europe, and they are reindeer herders and again, subsistence agriculturalists. Their entire way of life has been turned upside down by rising temperatures, so the snow and the landscape from which they've relied on for centuries is completely changing and that is affecting and threatening their traditional customs and way of life. She was there to talk about that from a European perspective.
And then finally, we had Ezra Miller who's an actor and musician from, and he was there really to learn about climate change and to learn about these issues. He's a very passionate activist as well as an actor. He has first-hand experience of climate impacts in the form of Hurricane Sandy which hit his home town, and really devastated the homes of some of the people he knows. He went down to visit the site so he also has a personal connection to it. But obviously he's a very popular actor. He's very significant amongst young people, and that was really the target we were trying to reach with this project because young people are about to inherit this world, and the decisions made about the Arctic right now will directly affect them. So it's very important that these young people were able to be a mouthpiece for the youth around the world.
Some studies claim Millennials don't care about the environment. Were the young people you were hoping to target receptive to the project?
Yes, first of all, we had 2.7 million names in the capsule and many many of them were young people who seem to get this issue very intuitively and also are a lot less cynical and apathetic than some of the older generations. So we have many young supporters, but I think the biggest indication that it was successful with young people was social media which is obviously their media of choice these days. The support and range of voices that we heard of social media was phenomenal – young people from Brazil, from Peru, to Australia and New Zealand sending their love and support to all of the group.
So I think it was really interesting that this is something that didn't rely on traditional newspapers or TV stations—this is something that people were interacting with on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and that was the way we got the message out so it was quite pioneering for us in that way.
Can you talk about the significance of the flag?
So we ran a competition over the past few months in collaboration with the World Association of Guys and Girls Scouts which is a 10 million strong international organization. It was open to anyone under the age of 26 to design a "flag for the future" which was supposed to represent hope and global unity, and we had thousands of entries from around the world and they were eventually judged by a panel of judges including Vivienne Westwood, the fashion designer, who chose and incredible flag from a 13-year-old Malaysian girl which has interlocking doves of peace and lots of different colors representing different cultures around the world.
The idea behind that was to plant a flag on the seabed, not as an attempt to claim it, but as an attempt to declare it protected on behalf of all life on Earth—so not any one country or any one corporation, but to say really, the Arctic is such a special place that it serves to be a common heritage of all of us and that's in direct opposition to what's happening in the Arctic right now where countries like Russia and Canada and the U.S. are laying territorial claim to this pristine, untouched, uninhabited area around the North Pole, really simply for oil drilling and industrial fishing. So it was kind of an act of defiance and one of the reasons we did that is because the Russians planted their own flag beneath the North Pole back in 2007 really as a stunt, a bit of political posturing, but it was the beginning of an oil rush which is starting to happen now in the Arctic which is something we're very strongly opposed to.
What were your greatest challenges during the expedition?
I think the biggest challenge was that it wasn't a traditional polar expedition in that our objective wasn't only to reach the Pole and get there safely and return. It was to carry all of this equipment by hand. We had very heavy sleds carrying all of the equipment we would need to make a hole in the ice and then lower this capsule down. We also had camera equipment, we were making a documentary about it so it was very high-quality professional camera gear. So with 16 people and all of that gear we found it very difficult to make the kind of speedy progress that you might expect to make on a normal expedition.
And then we were faced with the challenge of Mother Nature in that the way the Arctic Ocean exists is these large sheets of ice that are all interlocking and moving dependently so when we started the expedition we were moving Northward at a very slow rate which was perfect because you're going in the right way, but after we began to walk that drift changed back to a Southerly drift which was up to 0.8 kilometers per hour which meant that while we were sleeping every night we would move back 7 or 8 kilometers from where we went to camp which meant that it was incredibly difficult to make progress. We actually crossed the '20 kilometers from the Pole' marker three times during our walk. I think that was the biggest challenge and something that we will have to keep our spirits up about.
What do you think is the most imperative climate policy we need to enact at this stage in the Arctic?
I think it has to be oil drilling up there. I think putting a ban on oil drilling in the Arctic seems like the only logical response to the rapid onset of climate change that we're seeing around the world. I think if in 100 or 200 years time people read in history books that our response to the melting ice in the Arctic was not to act to move to renewable energy and cut down our use of fossil fuels, but was to go up there and drill for more oil they really won't forgive those people in power and the greed of those corporations that attempted to do that. So not drilling in the Arctic on it's own won't solve the climate crisis, but I do think it would be a real, if we can win this, if we can keep the oil companies out, I think it would be a real black eye to that industry and will hopefully begin to realign the way the fossil fuel companies have more power than most governments around the world.
Certainly banning oil drilling up there is a great start, but obviously we need a worldwide shift away from fossil fuels and into alternative technologies really urgently because without that the Arctic really will continue to melt. Some scientists are predicting glacier-free summers in the Arctic within 10 to 20 years, and considering we've already lost nearly 80 percent of the Arctic sea ice since 1979, it's a terrifyingly fast process, and it's clear that we need to urgently act to stop it.
What was the most memorable moment for you on the expedition?
Reaching the North Pole itself. We camped very near it, and we all skied there so that we could be on the geographic North Pole, and I didn't expect it, actually, to be anything very special because the landscape is the same. It's not like the South Pole where there's an actual pole in the ground because you're on moving ocean so there isn't any one point, but just the feeling of being on the top of the world and realizing that you're standing on a giant, shifting block of ice that was moving around this point at the North Pole which is in every single time zone, and at that time of years has 24-hours of sunlight because the sun is always rotating around the top of the world.
It just made you feel very small and insignificant, a little bit like when you look up to the stars and realize how small this planet is in comparison to the galaxy. It was a phenomenal moment, and being there with the others—Renny was the first guy from the Seychelles to be up there. It just felt like an incredibly lucky experience to have.
Would you go on the expedition again if you could choose?
I would yes. I mean, I'm not sure that I would do it tomorrow. I need a bit of recovery time first, but if it made a difference I would absolutely jump at the chance. We've done this in order to make a symbolic act, and I think that was fantastic, but I'm sure we will be doing more.
This Arctic campaign is far from over, and we won't end it until we have our ultimate objective which is a sanctuary around the uninhabited area around the North Pole and a ban on oil drilling and industrial fishing in the rest of the Arctic. There's a long way to go and we're taking on some of the biggest and most powerful corporations and countries in the world and so that's why we're absolutely relying on young people and people power in general to speak out, and I think the biggest thing that we can do right now is raise public awareness because when I speak to my friends or people that I know who know nothing about what's going on up there they're genuinely pretty shocked to find out that we're trying to industrialize this sacred part of the world. I think if we get enough young people behind us than we really can win this.
Anything else you want to add?
Just on that last point, in terms of 'we can win this,' Greenpeace was involved in a campaign to protect that Antarctic in the '90s and that resulted in a world park being created in that region which puts it off limits to any industry for 50 years. I think the biggest thing that we face, the biggest challenge that we face is people saying, 'Oh, it's inevitable, we need the oil. There's no alternative.' The biggest thing that we can do is to tell people that 'yes, this is possible, and not only is it possible, but it can be a watershed moment in this fight to tackle climate change.' So, instilling that sense of belief and integrity in this sort of idea is absolutely crucial. but I think we're getting there and I feel very positive after this trip that we can do it.