Meet the Climate Scientists Travelling by Bike and Foot from the Poles to Paris
Traveling a combined distance of 20,000 kilometers (nearly 12,500 miles), the two scientists—plus team members joining them along the way—are working to raise awareness about climate change ahead of December’s Paris climate conference.
Erlend Moster Knudsen on the Northern Run. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
Meet Dr. Daniel Price, UK specialist in Antarctic climate and Dr. Erlend Moster Knudsen, Norwegian specialist in Arctic climate.
Since the spring, the two have been hosting events with local communities along their journeys—Price, bringing a flag from the Antarctic as he makes his way up from New Zealand, covering some 17,000 kilometer (more than 10,000 miles) by bike and Knudsen, taking the lead on the 3,000 kilometer (more than 1,800 miles) Northern Run beginning at the tip of Norway.
And on the rare occasion that travel by land isn’t possible—say when going from Norway to the UK—carbon offsets from one of their partners, MyClimate.org, are used to compensate for the climate impacts of flying.
DeSmog UK recently spoke with the two scientists over Skype as Knudsen was preparing to make his way from Norway to Cambridge and Price, sitting in an Austrian hostel, was about to start his final leg through the Alps.
Knudsen and Price talk about their many experiences, from trying to close the gap between the scientific community and society when it comes to knowledge about climate change, to witnessing first-hand the number of people at risk from the impacts of climate change in the developing world.
Kyla Mandel (KM): How did this all come about? What inspired this idea of running and cycling from the poles to Paris?
Dr. Erlend Moster Knudsen (EMK): As we were getting closer towards the end of our PhDs we realized more and more that we’re spending a lot of time conducting research that is only read by our fellow scientists whereas the big potential for improving our climate understanding is really among the general public.
I did my PhD in Arctic sea ice and Arctic climate whereas Dan did his PhD in Antarctic climate and Antarctic sea ice. So this kind of explains why we’re starting in the poles … But it’s also because those are the regions where climate change is occurring at the fastest rates.
Dr. Daniel Price (DP): It was majorly driven by frustration. I sat down at my desk one day finishing up my PhD and I realized that even my parents didn’t know about COP21, even my parents who I babble on, complaining about my PhD to … didn’t even understand it. My closest friends weren’t even getting it, so there’s just this massive gap between science and society, which is really the problem, which I’ve come to realize even more during this as to how key it is that the more people that get this the faster we’ll move forward. So, that was kind of the driving factor for it all.
I decided I wanted to dedicate the rest of the year to public outreach because that’s the really key thing now, right? Doing all the science and no one understanding it is pretty pointless.
EMK: This is really an initiative to try and bridge the gap between academia and the general public, the understanding of climate change. So we’re trying to raise awareness of climate change and especially focusing on this climate summit that will take place this year in Paris.
DP: I think the gap is absolutely profound between the professional science level and the general public. And it’s exactly like you said what your main focus is [at DeSmog], sort of clearing this noise and disinformation. It’s just so important because it’s delayed us 20 years this active misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry … So that’s something I am super passionate about, just getting the facts straight because it’s painful and it’s so dangerous. I don’t know how we’re going to look back on these guys in an historical context. You can’t really do anything more evil than that. It’s pretty painful.
Daniel Price speaking with local media about climate change. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
KM: What has been the reaction so far when you engage with the public?
EMK: People I meet are very positive and I find also that most people have questions. They’re not denialists; they’re not climate denialists saying, "Hey, I don’t believe in human induced climate change, it’s all a hoax." People don’t say that. People have questions, they may have heard something from a neighbor, they might have read something in the newspaper and so they’re like "oh, is this something related to this?"
DP: Definitely setting the facts straight and getting the key messages across is really important to tell the general public … Generally people are just, not necessarily in shock, but kind of had their eyes opened when they realized some of these basic facts in understanding how it all works. So that’s been really amazing to see.
KM: On a day-to-day basis what have your travels been like?
EMK: I didn’t do this only running on roads. I chose as much as I could to stay in the mountains and stay on paths and in forests, so I have covered a lot of elevation, been doing a lot of up and down … The reason why I chose to do this was that, first of all, I [want] to avoid injuries. When one person is running this far and I was running with a backpack … so you have a lot of stress on your knees and your legs … It also provides me with a lot of motivation running in nature.
DP: [For me,] it’s been pretty varied. It’s normally eight to ten hours of cycling a day on average … It was a bit tough to get used to at first [with 30 or 40kg of gear on your bike]. Typically [I’m] covering about 100km a day. Through segments in China and Mongolia, one of my friends joined me there and we were averaging about 160km a day, so those were massive days. We tried to cycle from Beijing to Ulan Bator in Mongolia as fast as we could and managed to do it in eight days. That was an amazing experience going up through the Gobi there was really cool.
But once you get in and Erlend I’m sure has the same experience, you’ve still got the project to run as well, so getting into your emails, planning down the line and trying to get all those things sorted.
KM: Dan, you’ve cycled through many different countries and cultures, what’s that been like?
DP: For me, from a scientific perspective data on climate change is the only way to assess it really … Climate is just sort of 30 years of something happening and it is really difficult to pick out these [local] stories and attribute current climate change to what’s going on in certain cases.
Photo credit: Pole to Paris
It was quite tricky for me as well because of the language barrier. People kept asking me to find out local stories, because obviously they’re much more powerful because they’re personal … But one that does stick out to me is that they are having problems with desertification in Mongolia. We met countless herders in the desert but of course I can’t communicate to them what’s changing but it is very apparent in those regions that there is this extra stress in their lives because it’s becoming more difficult to have a livelihood.
Bangladesh is a pretty clear example as well. I was working with the UNDP [the United Nations Development Program] there and we had translators, [so] that’s a much clearer story to establish … It’s a deltaic country, there’s 160 million people there and 30 million of them live within one meter of sea level … but then the situation on the ground is just so complicated, it’s not necessarily a case that the water is going to rise in one area by one meter, because it’s just such a naturally evolving landscape anyway.
And then, to see the stress that’s already in that country. The Bangladeshi people are absolutely incredible, I was just blown away. [Climate change] is going to add extra stress to this country that’s trying to sort of get ahead of the game, it’s pretty upsetting to see … Shrinking a country [due to sea level rise] with a population that’s expanding is obviously not going to end well.
The real clincher for climate change is the extra stress it’s going to put on society.
KM: Right, it’s not just about the environment, it’s about people too.
DP: It’s been absolutely, massively eye opening for me just to appreciate just how many people are at risk with this. It sounds totally mundane I guess, you kind of sit at home and think "Oh yeah, lots of people" but going through places like Indonesia and Bangladesh, just the amount of people is insane. And a lot of them are already living on the fringe so it is pretty worrying how these communities are going to adapt and how far they can adapt.
So, that really clicked with me at one point that the human development and the whole human rights side of it, is just so strong. And the amount of people that are susceptible to these changes, that’s something that really clicked with me while traveling through.
Daniel Price. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
KM: What’s been the most challenging part of the journey so far?
EMK: I think in general the most challenging part is being able to motivate yourself no matter how your legs feel, no matter how the weather is … you might be staying in a little cabin up in the mountains which I did a lot, the wind outside sounds like it’s going to lift the whole cabin and take it off to somewhere else and the little cabin is warm, you have your food, you have shelter, you have a fire going, you have pretty much everything you need and you know you have to get out and cover 30km until the next time you’re safe.
That to me is a challenge, you have to be pretty strong mentally to prepare yourself and just take it on because I could never fall behind the schedule because I have so many presentations along the way, so I could really not wait and stay and relax for a day. There was no chance to do that.
DP: It’s been much more of a mental challenge than physical. I guess a lot of people say that. When you do something physical it’s all mental really. The body keeps going. But just trying to run the project at the same time as trying to cover kilometers can be quite challenging.
And trying to keep our message clear. It becomes very difficult once you’re completely immersed in a project to understand what it looks like from the outside. That’s been a massive learning lesson for me.
Erlend Moster Knudsen. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
KM: And the most enjoyable part?
EMK: Since the biggest challenge is mental, not really physical, just mentally [trying] to motivate yourself day in and day out, then having people who really salute the project, that really support it, [helps].
Photo credit: Pole to Paris
People have been giving me food along the way, some people giving me perhaps a bed for the night or a warm shower, some people just gave me some nice words along the way, which is just so, I can’t stress how important that is, especially since I’ve been running so much alone. Just meeting these random people, they say go for it, they give me a thumbs up and saying I’m doing a great job, that really means a lot to me because it’s a bit of a journey in solitude for a while there, it makes more sense when you have those thumbs up and slap on your back and just keep going kind of thing, it’s really, really supportive.
KM: In addition to helping communicate climate change to the public what message do you hope to send to decision makers in Paris?
EMK: That there are so many people that now see changes. They hear our politicians talking about it, but there is such little change when it comes to policies. It’s very politically correct nowadays to talk about climate change and environmental stuff, that’s very important, but when it comes to it, it’s always being looked at as something that is costly … And so, I believe that when you send a signal that, first of all, a lot of people are joining in an initiative like this and supporting it in so many different ways, but [it’s] also saying that this is possible.
In the same way that Dan and I are capable of biking and running across half the globe, it is also possible to use the options we already have, the tools we already have, because we have so many tools available… [From] renewable energy all the way to the way we design our cities.
DP: I see this project as a small part in this whole global effort that is going on from everyone to try and build the movement and try and just put momentum ahead of Paris, so that, the key thing is that the policy makers feel the pressure to pursue what we need to do with enough ambition.
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Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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