The importance of bringing decision makers to Antarctica

NEAR BROWN’S BLUFF, Antarctica — On our fourth day in this strange, cold world, I clutch the side of a Zodiac inflatable boat along with nine other people. The boat rams against a block of ice the size of a refrigerator. We’re trying to clear a path through a field of sea ice that is more than 4 miles wide. In 1915, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men were stranded for months in this volatile terrain while trying to reach an island nearby. 

The man driving the Zodiac is Phil Wickens. He’s from Derbyshire, England, but he spends about seven months a year in Antarctica and another three or four in the Arctic, leading trips. Every morning, we hop in the sturdy rubber boats and are ferried by seasoned guides like Wickens to different landing spots on the continent and surrounding islands. 

There, we experience Antarctica; hiking ice ridges, negotiating crevasses, mingling with penguins and seals. These Zodiac trips are the heart of the organization 2041’s Antarctic expeditions. They are the vehicle for our interaction with this place. 

Joining me in the Zodiac today are: a man from Portugal who works for the global food company CSM, two women from East Africa who work for Coca-Cola, and five people from the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), the public company that supplies Dubai’s electrical grid. The chatter on the Zodiac veers from English to Arabic as the Dubai engineers muse on the differences between their desert and the polar one we’re navigating. 

Robert Swan, who heads up 2041, believes that his mission to preserve Antarctica can’t happen without corporate and government involvement. The hope is that when these decision makers send delegates to Antarctica, the delegates return with more than just an adventure story. They return as converts to the cause, meticulously coached by Swan and his staff in how to spread the message of Antarctic preservation and the serious consequences of climate change. Maybe, just maybe, a little less carbon emission will result. It is Swan’s version of: think global, act local. 

In 2002, on a trip to Africa, Swan sought out representatives from Coca-Cola because it is the “second best known word on earth after OK.” Swan also relentlessly pursued DEWA, which finally agreed after three years. This year the utility sent the only government representatives from any country as yet to go on a 2041 trip. 

The rigorous selection process for the DEWA delegation provides insight as to how this Middle Eastern company – and many other corporations – view environmental preservation. Successful applicants were winnowed down from hundreds through a series of written essays, presentations, self-made videos and personality assessments. 

There was a short list, then another. In one final interview, Abdulla Al Hussam, a 25-year-old engineer, was asked to envision a hypothetical situation in which a Zodiac boat was punctured, someone had a broken leg, someone else was stubbornly refusing to cooperate with the group, and all had lost radio communications. Al Hussam had studied survival videos on YouTube, and answered that he’d take the Zodiac to shore, create shelter and a flare, and try to keep everyone’s spirits up. 

He won a spot on the trip. 

An intensive three weeks of preparation followed. There were dailyCrossFit sessions with a trainer. Each of the five delegates received personalized meal plans via a What’s App group text. At one point, after meeting with a fellow Emirati who had walked unassisted to the North Pole, Nana Badawi, a 31-year old senior executive for strategy execution, had nightmares about frostbite. She grabbed her husband’s hand, and said, “I’m scared I’ll die in the cold. I don’t think I want to go anymore.” 

All this was to underscore how serious DEWA is about sustainability. “It’s not just like okay, we have money, let’s send five,” says Badawi, who ultimately overcame her fears to join the trip. 

The delegates are expected to go on the 2041 mission, come back and have something to say about climate change, both within the company and around the city, she explains. 

The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority is a government entity that does not skirt the issue; they have a robust sustainability and climate change department, and they are currently building one of the largest solar panel fields on earth. 

They are here because they are asking themselves, says Swan, “how are they going to power it all in the future?” 

Doris Kendi sits across from the DEWA delegates on the Zodiac. She had never seen snow before this trip. She is a mother of two, and has been with Coca-Cola in Nairobi for eight years. This is the first year the company has sent any women on the trip. At SABCO, an African bottling company subsidiary, Kendi is a check unit manager. In the Zodiac, she frequently snaps pictures and videos on her iPad. The ice moves around us, alive and fluid.

“It is so beautiful,” she whispers. “It is a blessing.” 

This is the ideal world Robert Swan painstakingly curates: representatives from the biggest companies and the most powerful cities on earth, different colors and cultures and religions, all crammed next to each other in inflatable life vests, holding on to the side of a Zodiac and praying we don’t get stuck or launched in to the frigid water. 

Here, we are all stripped down to raw. Our fears are the same, as is the awe we feel in the face of this majestic and fragile place. I’m reminded of something one our guides said: “There is no malice in the Antarctic. This place isn’t trying to kill you. It is just totally and utterly indifferent to you.” And yet, as Swan argues, its preservation is critical to our survival. 

Eventually, Phil the Zodiac driver prevails, and we find a path through the ice floe. The guys from DEWA let out a whoop and sing old Bedouin songs as we take off across open water. Doris grins in the sun. 

No one knows yet how it will go, taking this optimistic message of peace and cooperation and preservation back to each of our faraway homelands. But we know at least we’ll make it back safe together tonight.