Our sustainability ambassador Lewis Pugh, writes of his recent challenge and the reasons why below.
I recently completed the world’s first multi-day swim in the Polar Regions, when I swam across Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord, fed by the world’s fastest moving glacier.
The distance was 7.8 km. I completed the swim over 14 days, in icy waters between 0°C and 3°C. It was gruelling.
At the end of the swim I felt relief, exhaustion, cold – and deep, deep worry. One week before I started, rain fell on the highest mountain in Greenland for the first time in recorded history.
I undertook this swim to focus the world’s attention on the real and frightening impacts of climate change.
There is no better place than Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord to demonstrate this, which is why I chose to swim there. The Polar Regions are feeling the effects of climate change more than any other place on Earth.
And while I was there, I got a taste of just how powerful and devastating those effects can be.
In the days before my swim I was joined by my friend Simon McDonald – formerly Head of the Foreign Office – who gave me some very sage advice.
I had been hoping for water temperatures between 3°C and 5°C. But soon after arriving in Greenland it became apparent that the water temperature was going to be a lot lower. When you are swimming in water that close to freezing, every degree makes a massive difference.
As I watched the water temperatures plummet and my spirits along with them, Simon pulled me aside. He recommended that I segment my thoughts so as not to get overwhelmed by the task at hand. Each day, he suggested, I had just one job to do: concentrate on the swim in front of me, and nothing else. When I swim in the morning, I should only think of the morning swim. The afternoon’s swim would be the afternoon’s problem.
He was so right. While highlighting the plight of our planet and its oceans are the reasons I do these swims, I needed to narrow my focus on the task at hand. Easier said than done, but essential for success.
Ilulissat did not make it easy. Four days into my swim I looked out of my window and saw an enormous iceberg break apart, and thousands of icebergs which had been trapped behind it poured out to sea, creating a moving motorway of ice.
The Ilulissat glacier calves an average of 30 cubic kilometres of ice into the sea every year. It produces icebergs over 1 km tall. One of those icebergs, legend has it, was the one that sank the Titanic.
I could well believe it, as I watched the sea becoming clogged with ice and freezing over. Without a clear patch of water, I couldn’t swim. My team had to move our base location to find open water. When we did find an open patch, it was like running across a motorway – except that, instead of dodging cars, I was swimming in 0°C water dodging icebergs.
If I hadn’t been acutely aware of the bigger picture, I would not have been able to undertake this task.
If I hadn’t narrowed my focus each day to concentrate on the present moment, I wouldn’t have been able to get in the water each day.
And if I hadn’t been prepared to change my tactics when the situation demanded it, the entire expedition would have been a failure.
Balancing long and short-term views is something that every successful leader – in business or politics or on expedition – understands.
It’s also the kind of thinking celebrated by the IFS Change for Good Sustainability Awards.
As IFS Sustainability Ambassador, I have the privilege of being a judge for #ChangeforGood. I enjoyed learning about the innovative social and environmental ideas that will help us tackle this Climate Crisis head on, and to meeting people who are using technology to protect our planet, and inspiring others to do the same.
Change for Good
We have to make radical and fundamental changes to our behaviour as a species if we are to reverse the damage our activities are having on our planet.
We all need to turn our focus not only to climate-stabilising legislation, but to everyday actions we must all take, which will make a tangible difference to our global big picture. We need big solutions, done at scale, and rolled out at speed.
This is why I will be engaging with leaders at COP26 in November. Their mission has never been so critical. The decisions made at COP26 will shape all of our futures, and that of every creature, great or small.
Our very lives – and theirs – depend on it.