What happens when you take a group of scientific and business leaders out of the conference rooms and into the wild – where days are filled with backcountry skiing and evenings with climate change discussions? That’s what the Tarfala Think Tank wants to find out.
We still pass through shadows, but the peaks high above glow a fiery red-yellow in the morning sun. Only the soft whisper of skis sliding up the snow-clad glacier can be heard, with the bulk of Kebnekaise massif – Sweden’s highest mountain – leaning in over us from all sides. The silence is suddenly ripped asunder by the pounding roar of an avalanche crashing down a nearby mountain side. The snow and ice at the mountain tops must be getting warmer. Then again, another one releases, this time just a few hundred meters away.
Our mountain guide, Carl Lundberg, takes a brief look and registers the details of each new slide without missing a step in his tempered pace – our path presumably out of harm’s way. Of course, safety can never be one hundred percent guaranteed in the mountains. Yet by using forecasts, observations, acquired knowledge and by consistently erring on the side of caution, a good mountain guide can navigate and mitigate most risks. A reckless guide, on the other hand, is in the best case unemployed and in the worst at the bottom of a crevasse. Convinced Carl belongs to the “good guide” category, I resolve to trust his judgement and enjoy the powerful spectacle each avalanche presents.
The best untold story in town
In the same way, climate scientists are not all-knowing and their margins of error are often large. Yet despite their shortcomings, they are perhaps the best navigators of the unpredictable risks we will encounter with increasing frequency.
Following an impeccable day in spring skiing conditions, a group of 25 exhausted yet elated delegates gather together in the Tarfala Research Station. The station is run by Stockholm University and consists of a dozen aging, rust-colored cabins clustered at the foot of Storglaciären, literally translated as “The Big Glacier.”
Research has been going on here since 1946, giving Storglaciären the reputation of holding the world’s longest continuous glacial mass-balance record. Thus, the station attracts many researchers and experts in the field, including one of the most reputable contemporary climate researchers, Swedish professor Johan Rockström. One day he is being interviewed in the New York Times, the next he is speaking at a UN conference. Today, he’s welcoming us to his semi-top-secret event in the middle of nowhere.
“Us scientists have the best untold story in town,” he begins after everyone is seated. “On the one hand, humanity is utterly destroying the world. But then on the other, the fix is totally doable.”
An admitted pragmatist, Johan Rockström has a knack for cutting through utopic optimism and defeatist status quo-ism. He believes that when it comes to climate change, a wild dash for some poorly defined finish line will not achieve the results we want. But alternatively, doing nothing will all but guarantee that we fail. That’s why he’s pushing for a paced effort towards science-based targets.
He continues to summarize our current climate situation, explaining that over the last ten thousand years, during the epoch known as the Holocene, temperatures have remained remarkably stable and human civilization has flourished. The last time Earth’s climate left Holocene conditions 70,000 years ago, the global human population was nearly eradicated.
“Many global changes resulting from human behavior now suggest we are entering a new epoch referred to as the Anthropocene. If we don’t change course in time, we risk tipping into a climate state where there is no guarantee a civilization of 9 billion can survive.”
In other words, if the Holocene has been our Garden of Eden, our current trajectory into the Anthropocene may soon become our hell. Humanity’s best bet, according to Johan Rockström, is therefore to find and accelerate solutions that enable us to remain in Holocene conditions.
How? That’s the issue Tarfala Think Tank will wrestle with over the next five days, exploring a variety of approaches championed by this group of passionate individuals.
An idea born on foreign slopes
The idea came to light in Chamonix during a guided ski tour, where Johan Rockström and Pia-Maria Lodhammar discovered that they shared a passion for both skiing and climate issues. Pia-Maria Lodhammar, M.D., works in Tromso in Northern Norway, with a special interest in prehospital care in alpine winter environments.
“We spoke a lot about how something happens with people in the alpine,” recalls Pia-Maria Lodhammar, “Meetings and conversations ensued. It went quickly from an idea into action, and in the winter of 2017, we gathered here for the first time. The response was incredible, and this year there’s even more of us – 25 fantastic people!”
The guest list had been carefully put together by Rockström himself. Mountain-lover and CEO Eva Karlsson from Houdini Sportswear, one of Europe’s outdoor brand leaders in sustainability, is one. Another is Björn Ferry, Swedish Olympic biathlon gold medalist turned national TV celebrity, starring in a program where he and his family strive to reduce their carbon footprint at a rate consistent with the Paris Agreement. Keith Tuffley is a polar expeditioner in his spare time and is otherwise founder of NEUW Ventures, an entrepreneurial impact investing company that creates and finances businesses that aim to reduce the human ecological footprint.
And so the guest list continues. Each and every individual having an incredible CV with regards to both their career and their outdoor experience. Yet I quickly find that out here, none of that seems to matter. In the great equalizing force of the alpine, it’s the person who comes out, turning resumés into nothing more than good firestarters.
Each evening we gather, joints aching after a long day skiing, and listen to a prepared presentation from a few of the guests. Two presenters with very different backgrounds in particular keep my pen tearing through the pages of my notebook: Nigel Topping and Pella Thiel.
Nigel Topping is CEO of We Mean Business Coalition, and instead of a PowerPoint presentation, he invites us to join him in the common area for some impromptu storytelling. With firsthand accounts of the events and eccentric personalities behind the Paris Agreement negotiations – to which he had front row seats – he shares the gripping tale of how last minute pressure from the business world helped save the 30-page long agreement from the brink of collapse caused by just one single word, “shall.”
Sitting there comfortably in his thermal underwear and with a sense of humor and wit that seems innate to the British, it’s easy to forget he leads a coalition of massively influential businesses that are committed to keeping the world economy on track to avoid dangerous climate change.
Pella Thiel’s natural candor becomes clear soon after meeting her: She doesn’t nod politely if she doesn’t agree and doesn’t laugh if it’s not funny. But when she does agree it’s sincere and when she laughs it comes from the heart. She is cofounder of Rights of Nature Sweden, part of a global grassroots movement that seeks to fundamentally alter humanity’s relationship to nature by applying pressure on the greatest leverage point – our legal system.
“In granting nature legal standing, humans can raise cases in defense of natural entities as though they were endowed with the same rights as humans,” Pella Thiel explains.
While we listen to the movement’s success stories, it becomes clear that there is potential for sweeping changes at the stroke of a pen. “With enough pressure,” I think, “something like this could actually work!”
The solution to climate change is:
But soon, questions begin to gnaw at me. Perhaps it’s a bit optimistic to believe we could protect nature’s rights when we often do such a lousy job of protecting the rights of our fellow humans? I think about the other paths proposed by the guests. Change at the individual level, one by one and voluntarily? But climate change is clearly a systemic problem… And come to think about it, isn’t business’ insatiable appetite for growth the reason we’re all sitting here having these discussions in the first place? What is the solution here, really? Confusion sets in.
Fortunately, at some point I’m thrown a lifeline.
“The thing about system change,” Nigel Topping is saying, “is you never know what will change the system until it’s already happened. That’s why it’s good to have many different strategies running at the same time.”
I let that sink in. It does make sense to keep attacking the problem from different angles despite their obvious shortcomings, and just because individuals, organizations and ideas may be ahead of their time, it doesn’t mean their time will never come.
From vision to action
Our final ski tour is bitter-sweet, climaxing at a spectacular panorama on Kebnekaise’s south peak ice cap while knowing that it is destined to melt away before long. The common thread running through the week’s discussions has been similarly double-sided, focusing on solutions to climate change on the one hand and on the other, learning more about the impending crisis should we fail to address it.
Yet in spite of the odds, there’s a palpable sense of optimism as we ascend the rolling glaciers by ski, bandage one another’s blistered feet afterward and dine together in the mess-hall. What is it that the participants see that gives them hope?
Maybe they see one another. Maybe they understand that if the solutions already exist, then it just comes down to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Or maybe it’s not all bad news, as Johan Rockström observes:
“Climate change doesn’t only represent unprecedented risks, but unprecedented opportunities as well. As a global civilization, we now have the incentive and have begun taking the first steps towards redefining our relationship to the planet and to one another.”
Thoughts come easy on dogsleds
The last day, I find myself packing out the same way I had come in – by dogsled. Finding inspiration has been easy in these pristine mountains, I reflect, as twenty-four dog paws whisk me across the valley bottom. Thoughts have been untangled. But will I be able to keep old thought and behavioral patterns from creeping in once we return to the cramped, asphalted world below?
I observe the dogs with amazement as they pull me along so effortlessly, and ask our young musher, Kuba Ziolko, to share more about his trade.
“Once you learn the personalities of the dogs, it quickly becomes obvious where to place them in the team,” he explains, and continues:
“The pair in front must be well-natured, know the commands, and respond without hesitation when called into action. The next pair are younger up-in-coming leaders, learning the commands and watching the two dogs in front. Next are a couple of random dogs that simply add their strength. Finally, the strongest dogs are put at the back. Any other configuration and you won’t get anywhere. The dogs will just fight, lose focus and tire out quickly.”
My mind wanders back to civilization and to the seeming confusion of everybody going in all directions. Of the multitudes of the willing who yearn to act, but are not sure how. With the Paris Agreement, we now know where the finish line is. The next step is to assemble the teams.
Not everybody needs to break trail. Where good leaders lead others can follow, and those at the forefront can pass on their know-how to the up-and-comers. People who feel they have nothing to contribute? There’s always the random dog post available, and it’s crucial. Lots of energy but don’t know what to do with it? Get behind a team and start pushing.
I think of the chaos of the sled dogs before they started running, untethered and without direction. Then their frustrated wails and howls as they’re teamed up, itching to run but still held back. Then, the sudden silence filled only by the wind and sense of shared purpose as they are finally released.
So where should we go? The Tarfala Think Tank might be a very good place to find the direction.
Photos: Fredrik Schenholm