Rituraj Phukan – a face to face interview
“The Greatest Threat To Our Planet Is The Belief That Someone Else
Will Save It” – Robert Swan
Question 1: Please tell us about your expedition to the North polar regionand the opportunity to represent India as the only person from the northeast region. Who were the leaders of the expedition and how many people were there in the team?
Answer: The Climate Force Arctic (CFA) Expedition to the north polar region was led by Robert Swan, OBE, F.R.G.S, and the first man in history to have walked to both the poles. Climate Force International Director and Robert Swan’s illustrious son Barney, who last year became the first person to reach the South Pole powered solely by renewable energy and The Explorer’s Passage Founder Jeff Bonaldi were among the Team Leaders.
I was very honored to have been invited by Robert Swan himself to be a part of the Climate Force Arctic Expedition. I have engaged with him several times since I first met him during the International Antarctic Expedition in 2013 and he is always very supportive of my passion to write about the biodiversity impacts of climate change.
The CFA team comprising of 86 scientists, naturalists, corporate leaders, writers, filmmakers, civil society leaders and other experts from 27 countries first met at Oslo, the 2019 European Green Capital of the Year award winning city. The acclimatization period included leadership sessions, workshops and presentations, with David Hone, author and Chief Climate Change Advisor at Shell, leading the discussions on climate change scenarios and solutions.
2) You had a book release at the North polar region, which is perhaps the first such instance for the entire country! Tell us something more about the book. Did you have any other personal contribution towards the expedition goals?
Answer: My book ‘Fin Del Mundo- Lessons from the End of the Earth’ was launched by Robert and Barney Swan during the expedition. The book chronicles my journey from having grown up in a climate change impacted region to the firsthand experience of warming during the International Antarctic Expedition in 2013.
On the second day, I was invited to deliver an audio-visual presentation about the proposed Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary for all marine areas north of the Arctic Circle and make a forceful case for MAPS as an immediate and effective response to today’s global ecological and humanitarian crisis. I also talked about the water crisis and the human-wildlife conflicts in India and the challenges for the survival of rhinos, elephants and tigers.
Along with the team, I also completed the ‘Leadership on the Edge’ program curated by Robert Swan, with focus on environmental leadership development, understanding of the latest climate science, scenarios and country specific solutions and sustainability education, with onboard sessions with the experts and field work in the pristine Arctic.
3) How did you travel to the top of the world? Is the Arctic really warming twice as fast as the rest of the world?
Answer: We flew to Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, which is located at only 800 miles from the North Pole. It was disconcerting to learn that parts of Svalbard, including Longyearbyen had warmed by over 5 degree Celsius in the past 20 years, threatening the lifestyles of the people and biodiversity of the region.
A few years back, several houses in Longyearbyen had collapsed due to an avalanche. The experience of landing and take-off at the airport has become bumpier because of permafrost melting below the runaway. In fact, almost all the infrastructure is unstable due to the loss of ice cover and permafrost exposure to the heat.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster, is located at Longyearbyen. However, in the summer of 2017, meltwater entered parts of the structure and it is now being reinforced.
From Longyearbyen, wetravelled north by the National Geographic Explorer expedition ship.
4) How was the daily routine on the ship? What did you learn at the frontiers of climate change?
Answer: The daily schedule was hectic, with interactive presentations on warming impacts in the arctic region interspersed with field visits to various fjords, glaciers and biodiversity rich areas. There were zodiac cruises, shore landings and hikes, kayaking and wildlife observation trips throughout the expedition.
The Arctic is the fastest warming region on the planet and the scientists said it could be free of sea ice during the summer by 2030. During our visit, we saw many islands where the ice cover was record low. Several of the fjords had ice free spaces and we were told that the volume of ice had shrunk considerably every year.
Welearntabout the changing dynamics of predator and prey interactions in the warming arctic ecosystems from wildlife biologists with decades of ongoing research in the polar regions. Animals like the seals, walrus and polar bears were facing survival threats because of the loss of sea ice.
5) Where did you encounter sea ice? What does the loss of sea ice mean for the planet?
Answer: At around 80-degree North, deep into the high arctic north polar region, our route was blocked by an endless expanse of sea ice. The loss of sea ice is of utmost concern, as it has implications for global weather and is vital for the survival of animals like seals and polar bears. So, we turned back without disturbing the sea ice, even though the National Geographic Explorer is an ice-strengthened vessel capable of breaking through sea ice.
The Arctic ice cools our planet and regulates weather patterns; what happens in the Arctic affects us all, with global impacts on the weather systems.
6) Did you face any challenges during the expedition?
Answer: The lack of darkness was certainly disconcerting; we had 24 hours of sunlight and the midnight sun was as high and bright as at any time of the day. We spent a lot of time on the deck, oblivious to the time. The islands of the Arctic ocean are incredibly beautiful with an abundance of wildlife. I hardly slept during the first few days on the ship and then I started to feel quite disoriented.
7). You also represented India as the only person from the northeast on the International Antarctic Expedition 2013. Can you share some memories of that expedition to Antarctica?
Answer: I was a member of the International Antarctic Expedition team, which was also led by Robert Swan, to gain firsthand experience of climate change impacts on the fragile Antarctic ecosystems.
One of the highlights of the International Antarctic Expedition 2013 was to visit the 2041 run ‘E-Base’ close to the Russian Bellingshausen base on King George Island. In 2008, Robert Swan had become the only private person in the world to have a base at Antarctica, the only base in Antarctica run entirely on renewable energy. He has also made a 50-year commitment to do all that he can to protect the last great wilderness,
I will never forget the moments from the 9th of March, when we were summoned to the top deck at 7 AM for the Iceberg Ceremony at Antarctic Sound. We saw us the large tabular icebergs that had floated north from the collapsed Larsen B ice shelf 11 years earlier.
Robert Swan said, “Back in 2002, most people did not believe in climate change. When it started to collapse, scientists said it will take a long time to collapse, but after the cracks were first noticed, it went very fast and collapsed in less than 4 weeks. Now, you have seen climate change impacts already happening here, you must help spread the word and ensure the world leaders take decisive action before it is too late.”
7) How do you relate your learnings to this region and what would be your defining message to the people of Assam?
Answer: I have understood that most of the challenges we face in Assam, ranging from theinflux of refugees, the increasingly intense annual flooding, riverbank erosion and human-wildlife conflict, are all connected to climate change. I am convinced that Assam is, in fact, one of the early climate-change impacted regions of the world. We have a case for climate justice here in Assam, more than any other region I know of.
I hope the future generations will be more responsible towards nature and play a more proactive role in assuring the protection of the polar ice caps, which will impact a lot of people without most of them being unaware of the connection.
8) Tell us about your journey as an environmentalist and climate activist, and experiences from a global perspective. What are your thoughts about the climate crisis?
Answer: I am an environmental writer and nature conservation mentor based in Nagaon. I quit my government job to begin a lifelong engagement with nature, travelling, writing and teaching students about the environment, wildlife and climate change. I am passionate about the 3 R’s: Warming, Water and Wildlife and work with grassroots communities in partnership with various agencies to develop a holistic approach to mitigate conflicts.
I was personally trained by Nobel Laureate Al Gore as a Climate Reality Leader and serve his organization The Climate Reality Project as an international Mentor. In 2017, I was honored to be featured in the former US Vice President’s book ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’.
On the Earth Day 2018, I was the only keynote speaker from Asia, presenting on ‘The Severity of the India Water Crisis’ during the We Don’t Have Time climate conference, the world’s first no-fly conference on climate change featuring prominent scientists, academics and activists.
I have delivered climate change presentations and talks in Malaysia, Norway, Sweden, Finland and participated in deliberations in the USA, Canada, Argentina, Denmark and Turkey and I am surprised by the lack of awareness about the human impacts of climate change in the developing world. Most people are unable to understand the misery brought on by water scarcity or having to live with the constant threat of wildlife depredations and conflicts. I have written the biodiversity impacts chapter in the book ‘Climate Abandoned: We’re on the Endangered Species List’ which was launched in the USA on Earth Day 2019, which includes the challenges faced by some of the iconic Indian wildlife species.
I believe in making a personal commitment to solve the environmental crises and believe that a plant-based diet is key to mitigate climate change, solve the water crisis, feed the hungry and stop destruction of primary forests. I hope to inspire a lot of people to make decisive lifestyle changes to positively impact the environment and contribute to the fight to prevent catastrophic warming before it is too late.
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