SAILING SOUTH by Sir Bob Watson

Chief Scientific Advisor, UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Strategic Director for the Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia


HOW OFTEN HAVE YOU WANTED to vacation and see one of the true natural wonders of the world only to be disappointed? Well the trip to Antarctica aboard a National Geographic ship captained by Sven Lindblad did not disappoint. It was not only the majestic icebergs, the tens of thousands of penguins, the dozens of seals, the glimpse of whales, the soaring birds that made this trip memorable, it was my fellow travelers to the far end of the world. Eight days with politicians including former Vice President Al Gore; Olafur Grimsson, President of Iceland; Hasan Mahmud, Environment Minister, Bangladesh; and Mosima “Tokyo” Sexwale, Minister of Human Settlements, South Africa; music stars including Jason Mraz and Mona Tavakoli, and Kathy Mattea and Jon Vezner; Industry giants including Richard Branson and Ted Turner; Venture capitalists including David Blood; Film Producers such as Jeff Skoll; Foundation founders, Scott and Christy Wallace, and Petter and Gunhild Anker Stordalen; Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Framework Convention on Climate Change; and of course my fellow scientists Rosina Bierbaum, Jim Hansen, Chris Rapley and Kevin Trenberth, and Sven-Olof Lindblad, Founder of the Lindblad Expeditions.

Why did such an eclectic and very busy group of people get together? Al Gore, and his Climate Reality Project, organized the trip to highlight the issue of human-induced climate change in a location that is one of the most vulnerable in the world. Every individual aboard the ship truly cared about the issue of human-induced climate change and the adverse consequences for life on Earth, both for humans and ecosystems.

The aim of the trip was to experience Antarctica, but also to educate each other, to share ideas and discuss climate change – the science, the impacts, the solutions, the politics, the ethics – and how to tell the story. We had over forty hours of lectures and discussions in the eight day trip – and almost everybody attended every session and fully participated in truly stimulating question and answer sessions.

We all met in Buenos Aires, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and then flew by a chartered plane to Ushuaia, the most Southerly city in the world. As we flew South we saw majestic ice-covered mountains. We then boarded the ship, set sail and prepared ourselves for the vagaries of the Drake Passage, noted for some of the most turbulent and rough seas in the world. Most fellow travellers took pills or placed little sticky patches behind their ears to avoid being sea sick, but — what an anticlimax! it was truly disappointing! — we crossed the passage as if it was a mill pond, flat as a pancake.

The two days crossing the Drake Passage were filled with lectures, about the history of Antarctica, about how the brain works, and the science of climate change. More about the lectures later.

After two days of sailing we had our first glimpse of Antarctica: vertical ice cliffs several hundred feet tall, and the next four days were spent hiking on the islands near Antarctica, zodiac rides among the icebergs, and kayaking. The zodiac rides chasing whales, observing seals, and viewing the most incredible icebergs, with caves deep blue almost purple in colour were, truly, breathtaking. The temperatures were warmer in Antarctica — just above freezing — than the past few weeks in London had been. However, one of the most amazing things to me was the silence, once we had hiked beyond the seals and penguins and birds, the silence was almost deafening. One evening, with the moon shining down, we sailed through a field of broken ice. The experience was truly awesome [it was very reminiscent of Titanic (the movie of course) except that we did not crash into any unexpected icebergs and sink. Everyone was running around with their cameras, smiling like kids on Christmas morning. Then Sven (the captain), a few drinks in, I’m sure, made an announcement on the loud speaker “Everyone, we have an EMERGENCY. BEAUTIFUL VIEW. Please make your way on deck or to the bridge.” Best night of the trip. Definite bonding experience. – ed.] We stopped at the Palmer Station on the continent of Antarctica and met some of the scientists who were studying the biology of Antarctica [one such being Ari Friendlaender, FYI. – ed.] and the surrounding seas. A desolate outpost, but one of scientific importance.

The lectures started with Al Gore giving a broad overview of the causes and effects of human-induced climate change and challenges facing the world to adapt or mitigate, using an incredibly sophisticated power-point presentation, which was an updated version of “An Inconvenient Truth”. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist, discussed how our left and right sides of the brain operate and how we can truly connect with the reality of the climate crisis. Tom Ritchie, a National Geographic Naturalist, and Chris Rapley, former Director of the British Antarctic Survey, discussed the geology, biology, climate and history of the continent. This was followed by a series of in-depth presentations on all aspects of climate change, with the basic message being that the Earth’s climate is changing, future changes are inevitable and these changes are in large measure due to human activities, the use of fossil fuels in the production and use of energy, agricultural practices and deforestation.

Rosina Bierbaum and I talked about the stark reality of the climate crisis. My presentation focussed on the how human-induced climate change threatens food, water and human security, with poor people in developing countries being the most adversely affected. Projected changes in temperature, precipitation and sea level rise will decrease the productivity of food in areas where people are already suffering hunger and famine, decrease water availability where people currently have little or no access to clean water, threaten tens of millions of people who live in low-lying Islands and low-lying deltaic areas, and potentially increase conflict and migration depending on the socio-economic-political conditions. I also discussed how projected changes in climate will lead to dramatic losses in biodiversity and the degradation of many ecosystems and their provisioning (e.g., food, fibre and energy), regulating (e.g., climate, air and water quality, pollination, pests and diseases, and storm surges), supporting (e.g., soil formation and biogeochemical cycling) and cultural services (e.g., religious, aesthetic, recreational, tourism). I then argued that the political goal of limiting human-induced climate change to no more than 2oC above pre-industrial levels was extremely unlikely and that the world’s current commitments to reduce emissions are consistent with at least a 3oC rise (50-50 chance) in temperature: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 3 million years, with serious risks of 5oC rise: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 30 million years. I then briefly argued that it was essential to transition to a low carbon economy as soon as possible, but it will require significantly more political will than shown to date, and that adaptation strategies need to be developed as soon as possible, but we need to recognize that there are financial, technological, behavioural and physical limitations.

My presentation was immediately followed by presentations on “hot spots” of the climate crisis, where there are locations of particular public health and security concerns. Afterwards, Christiana Figueres discussed the “bleak reality” of the global politics of climate change and the challenges of obtaining a meaningful global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the magnitude of human-induced climate change. Major issues include what is affordable and “what is equitable”. It is well recognized that the industrialized countries, which grew their economies by exploiting cheap fossil fuels, have largely caused the problem, but it will take concerted action by all countries to protect the climate system by transitioning to a low carbon economy. Issues include: to what degree should historical emissions be taken into account when allocating future national and regional emissions targets? Should allocations be based on per capita emissions or emissions per unit of GDP? and many other difficult and ethical considerations. A series of presentations then covered issues such as sustainable capitalism, women as leaders and agents of change in a warmer world, the enduring power of storytelling that inspires change, building a movement through traditional and new media, and a vision for the future: solutions to the climate crisis.

In the evenings we enjoyed incredible entertainment by Jason and Mona, and Kathy and Jon and by other guests, including Sam Branson who played the guitar, and Robert Wallace who played classical music on the piano.

Before we left Antarctica to return to Ushuaia, the captain announced the opportunity to have a polar dip. My initial reaction was to pass. Why one would want to jump into close to ice-cold water and freeze one’s extremities? Well peer-pressure is an amazing phenomenon. At first, a dozen or so brave individuals ran to their cabins to change into swim wear; Well, I couldn’t be left out and feel like a wimp, so off I went to change. It really was a great experience. Truly refreshing and not as cold as I imagined. Of course we only stayed in for less than a minute and were helped out by the crew. More than half the hundred-fifty guests participated in the experience, a larger percentage than almost all previous cruises.

As disappointing as the trip across the Drake Passage was on the way to Antarctica, the return did not disappoint at all. The return trip had thirty feet swells, whipping winds into my face as I held tightly onto the rails of the deck. It was truly amazing to experience the power of nature to such an extent.

As our journey on the ship came to a close we discussed the wonders of what we had experienced and took time to reflect on how each of us could assist in the path forward. It is clear that business-as-usual will lead to an unsustainable world with dire consequences. Cost-effective and socially acceptable solutions do exist, but political will and moral leadership is needed, and the changes in policies, practices and technologies required are substantial and not currently underway. There was a recognition that everybody on the ship could, in their own way, contribute to the solution.

Unless we act now to limit human-induced environmental degradation, history will judge us as having been complacent in the face of compelling scientific evidence that humans are changing the Earth’s environment with predominantly adverse effects on human health, ecological systems and socio-economic sectors. Do we really want our heritage to be that of sacrificing the Earth’s biodiversity for cheap fossil fuel energy, ignoring the needs of future generations, and failing to the meet the challenge of providing energy in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner when so many choices were available? Leaders from government and industry must stand shoulder to shoulder to ensure that the future of the Earth is not needlessly sacrificed.

PROFESSOR SIR ROBERT WATSON’s career has evolved from research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: California Institute of Technology, to a US Federal Government programs manager/director at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to a scientific/policy advisor in the US Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), White House, to a scientific advisor, manager and chief scientist at the World Bank, to a Chair of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, the Director for Strategic Direction for the Tyndall centre, and Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In parallel to his formal positions he has chaired, co-chaired or directed international scientific, technical and economic assessments of stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity/ecosystems (the GBA and MA), climate change (IPCC) and agricultural S&T (IAASTD).

Professor Watson’s areas of expertise include managing and coordinating national and international environmental programmes, research programmes and assessments; establishing science and environmental policies – specifically advising governments and civil society on the policy implications of scientific information and policy options for action; and communicating scientific, technical and economic information to policymakers. During the last twenty years he has received numerous national and international awards recognising his contributions to science and the science-policy interface, including in 2003 – Honorary “Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George” from the United Kingdom; 2010 – the Blue Planet Prize and 2011 being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 2012 being honoured with a Knighthood.


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