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Take little steps on climate change, says polar adventurer

Polar explorer and environmentalist Tim Jarvis prefers to pitch his environmental messages by stealth, weaving them into riveting accounts of his expeditions to the ends of the Earth.

The British-Australian adventurer demonstrated this in Singapore recently to a group of 170 Royal Geographical Society members and guests including students, teachers and parents at the United World College of Southeast Asia. Mr Jarvis attended school at UWCSEA as a boy while growing up in Singapore and Malaysia, among other places.

Speaking about his Antarctic journeys, Mr Jarvis said that they challenge him to find a resourcefulness within himself.

He has also found that relating his experiences in the North and South Poles is a useful way to show listeners how the effects of climate change are already beginning to devestate parts of the globe.

For example, he once had to scare off a polar bear who, hungry and grumpy after a long hibernation, eventually lumbered off in search of a seal. The pack ice where the seals congregate are drifting south, and polar bears have to swim increasingly longer and more dangerous distances to find their main food source.

Recalling his time at the school, the 46-year-old speaker, an environmental lawyer by training, said that his time at the school added to his sense of adventure and taught him he needed to pull his weight in society.

“I just kept going on that trajectory; it’s everyone else that veered off,” he joked.

His journey has taken him on multiple unsupported trips to both poles, meaning he travels with all of his own supplies and under his own power.

For most of his trips, he has been well-equipped with appropriate food rations and modern materials that keep him dry, if not quite warm. However, he has signed on for several re-creations of epic journeys that require him to be in a constant state of near-starvation and in debilitating cold.

The first historical trip was his re-enactment of an ill-fated 1912 Antarctica trip by Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, during which a third of the team and most of the supplies fatally plunged into a crevasse. Sir Douglas was left with only 20 per cent of the original food supply and a single teammate who died later in the journey.

In 2007, Mr Jarvis set out to prove that Sir Douglas could survive the rest of trip with the meagre supplies and rations that remained, partly to dispute claims by historians that Sir Douglas would have had to cannibalise his teammate to live through the ordeal.

The modern day explorer managed the trip, using only the same types of ill-suited clothing and equipment available on the original trip.

Despite the ever-present threats of frostbite, starvation, and getting lost in white-out conditions, the adventurer noted that the biggest obstacle by far on his 93-day trek was the mental challenge.

Mr Jarvis said that the lessons he learned while tackling these immense journeys should be applied to the seemingly insurmountable problems of the Earth’s declining health.

The key to overcoming the mental challenges is to not think about the whole trip, which is too overwhelming, and to focus on solving one problem at a time, he said.

“You have to look forward to the next problem on these trips; if you’re not, you’re done for,” he explained.

After returning from the Antarctic environment - where he said melting of the 2,000 metre thick ice cap would cause drastic sea level rises  - the explorer started an action-oriented non-profit organisation called Do-Tank.

Announced in Australia late last year, Do-Tank is similar to think-tanks in that it encourages people to work together to generate ways to solve environmental problems. But it goes several steps further by committing to funding and implementing the best ideas.

“The mission of Do-Tank is to act rather than talk about solving environmental issues,” said Mr Jarvis.

Do-Tank’s first project is an electricity scheme called Easy Green, which has been trialling in Australia with the help of utility firms who want to find practical ways of boosting customer uptake of excess renewable energy supply.

Previously, Australia’s utility customers have had options to join schemes - such as AGL’s Green Choice or Origin’s GreenPower programmes - that will ensure a minimum percentage of their power comes from renewable energy sources. While the extra cost has varied according to region, it has ranged from about AUS$1 each week for 25 per cent renewable energy to about $90 each quarter for 100 per cent renewable energy.

The Easy Green project was started to determine what happens when such programmes become opt out schemes, and how pricing affects customer choices. Customers would maintain control over their energy options, but would have to actively choose not to use green energy sources if they want the lower rate.

Mr Jarvis noted that uncertainty in the electricity market due to the implementation of Australia’s carbon tax has delayed the trials.

Do-Tank is exploring other projects, including new ways of applying opt out schemes, he said.

“It is a key tool for getting large numbers of normal people to act more sustainably at relatively low cost whilst avoiding costlier legal or behaviour change options,” he added.

In the meantime, Mr Jarvis shared that he is preparing for his next expedition in January, which will duplicate the famous 1916 journey led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Originally an expedition to cross Antarctica, the trip became a rescue operation after the team’s ship was crushed by ice before it reached Antarctica’s shores. Leaving 22 men waiting behind on Elephant Island in the South Sea, Shackleton sailed 800 miles with five of his men in a small whaling boat to South Georgia Island, where three of them climbed over icy peaks to reach a whaling outpost.  All 28 men survived the trip.

Mr Jarvis praised Shackleton for the leadership he showed throughout the rescue trip, which was well documented in journals and by the expedition’s photographer.  It is a kind of leadership that the world currently lacks, he added.

“Shackleton’s ability to lead from the front allowed him to get a disparate group of men to pull together against all impossible odds,” he said.

He noted that next year’s trip would be his last polar expedition using antiquated equipment, and that the trips took a permanent toll on him physically.

“Look at me. I’m actually only 26,” he announced to much laughter from the audience at the Royal Geographical Society-hosted event.

But he will continue his unique form of environmental advocacy - particularly within the corporate sector, much of which he has found to be unreceptive to standard talks on environmental problems.

Too many people are caught in states of denial or despondency over climate change, and they are too overwhelmed to take action, he noted.

“Let’s not try to solve climate change (all at once); let’s try to solve the smaller bits,” he said.

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