Tuesday 1st August 2017
Where I first heard about Lewis
Like a lot of people, I heard about Lewis Pugh on the news because of his first Arctic swim and his Thames swim. Back then I was only a teenager, and it wasn’t until around six years ago at university that I stumbled across a video of Lewis speaking about fracking in the Karoo (see below). The issue was very topical, and one that was relevant to me as I was completing my undergraduate degree in Climate Change at the time. The fact that I spent the first twelve years of my childhood growing up in Zimbabwe, also instilled in me a deep love of the natural world and the thought of a big oil company destroying another region in Africa filled me with anger.
I was captivated by the passion with which Lewis spoke, and delighted to have discovered a new environmental champion. I bought Lewis’s book Achieving the Impossible and realised that this was a man who was the living epitome of the phrase ‘nothing is impossible’. A former Cambridge University graduate, SAS reservist and endurance swimmer, Lewis has shown what is possible when you persevere and get your mind-set right. I was awed by what I read and proceeded to buy copies for friends and family – it’s one of those books which I believe can change lives. I’ve followed Lewis’s numerous campaigns since (including the Seven Swims, the Mumbai beach clean-up and the Ross Sea campaign), and have nothing but admiration for his dedication to protecting the oceans. When 21 Yaks and a Speedo came out, I devoured it in less a day. In the book, Lewis divulges his 21 tips for achieving your own dreams – a must read for everyone who wants to fulfil their potential in life. I could go on writing about Lewis, but the main purpose of this post is to talk about his latest expedition in the Arctic.
The Second Arctic Swim
On the 29th July 2017, Lewis swam one kilometre along the edge of the Arctic sea ice in -0.5°C waters. The swim took 22 minutes, and Lewis labels it as one of the hardest swims he’s ever had to do.
Lewis wrote an article prior to the swim, where he talked about the importance of protecting the Arctic: “I am deeply shocked by what I am witnessing. I’ve been swimming amongst ice for 15 years. It’s a substance I know well. I am not a climate scientist, but what I am seeing looks like runaway climate change in the Arctic.”
The Importance of the Arctic Region
The Arctic plays a crucial role in regulating the earth’s climate, and it is melting faster than models have predicted as a result of increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which are driving climate change. We have seen the Arctic sea ice reach lower and lower summer sea ice extents each year. Some have termed this rapid decline of sea ice as the ‘Arctic death spiral’, where the sea ice recedes further and further until eventually there will be none left in the summer months.
Peter Wadhams is a polar scientist with over 47 years of experience in the field and has carried out over 50 expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic. In his book A Farewell to Ice, Wadhams says: “By the end of 2015 a total of 238 ships had sailed through it [the Arctic]. In September 2012 sea ice covered only 3.4 million square kilometres (km2) of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, down from 8 million km2 in the 1970s.” When the ice disappears, Wadhams says: “The albedo change from the loss of the last 4 million km2 of ice will have the same warming effect on the Earth as the last twenty-five years of carbon dioxide emissions.”
This a profound statement to try and get our heads around. Worse still, there are frozen methane particles which could be released by the warming Arctic waters, which could trigger global runaway climate change, depending on the quantities released. Methane is a more potent form of greenhouse gas, which traps more heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. I wrote a blog post here, if you’d like to read more about runaway climate change.
Given how late we’ve left it, we need urgent global emissions reductions, combined with carbon dioxide extraction if we’re to stand any chance of saving what’s left of the sea ice. In his blog, Lewis calls for us to go beyond the Paris climate change agreement. Lewis is absolutely right to call for this – Paris is not strong enough on its own. For those who are unaware, world leaders met in Paris in 2015, and agreed to try and limit global temperature increases to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with an aim of keeping it below 1.5°C.
However, a few days ago a new piece of research estimated there was only a 5% chance of meeting the 2°C target, based on our current pathway and only a 1% chance of meeting the 1.5°C target.
This news is profoundly saddening. That’s why we need bold action from our leaders, and Lewis’s incredibly brave and courageous symbolic swim goes a long way in drawing their attention to this imperilled polar region. We have the renewable energy solutions – what we lack is the political will and the action from major companies (not words or ‘greenwashing’, but real-life action) to effectively tackle the greatest challenge facing us today. Scientists say we still have a small and shrinking window of opportunity to act to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – together we need to make full use of every single hour available to turn the tide. When we work together collectively, there’s nothing we can’t do.
I would like to thank Lewis for undertaking this swim and all the others he has done to highlight the issues and challenges facing our oceans. This one in particular, for the sheer hell Lewis must have gone through, and at one point nearly giving up. I don’t think anyone can truly appreciate the suffering Lewis underwent, but he has done this for each and every single one of us. For that we owe him a great deal of gratitude.
I’d like to thank Lewis for all his other environmental work, including the fracking talk he gave, which really helped lift me out of a depression I felt for the natural world. I’m personally working on different methods of trying to communicate climate change to a wider audience and engage more people with what’s happening to our planet. But actions speaks louder than words, and what you’ve done is beyond remarkable!
Over and above everything else, I’d like to personally thank Lewis for showing me what’s possible when we never give up, and put in the hard work so that we can achieve our dreams. I’ll end with two incredible TED talks from Lewis about his first Arctic swim, and his swim on Mount Everest.
Lewis’s talk about fracking in the Karoo – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5PejoRGmBo
My review of Peter Wadhams book, A Farewell to Ice – http://www.ryanmizzen.com/book-review-a-farewell-to-ice-by-peter-wadhams/
Lewis’s blog post on runaway climate change in the Arctic – http://lewispugh.com/runaway-cc-in-the-arctic/
Lewis’s blog on swimming along the Arctic sea ice – http://lewispugh.com/swimming-along-the-arctic-sea-ice/
Our chances of achieving the targets set in the Paris climate agreement – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/31/paris-climate-deal-2c-warming-study
TED talk: Lewis swimming at the North Pole – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HALd9FY5-VQ
TED talk: Lewis swims on Mount Everest – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QISHX5UKky0
My debut children’s picture book, Hedgey-A and the Honey Bees, is about the need to protect bees from pesticide pollution. It can be purchased online here.