In the evenings, the Vatnahalsen Think Tank participants discuss the urgent crises our planet faces. During the day, we go ski touring in the beautiful mountains that surround us. Is it possible to combine hard climate work with something as playful as skiing? Not only is it possible – it may be necessary.

“There will be no feel-good talk around ‘green-tech’ and ‘net zero. This is a “red pill’ type presentation,” says researcher Kevin Anderson. He is a professor at Manchester University in the UK and holds a visiting professorship at Uppsala University in Sweden – a logistical challenge since Kevin Anderson stopped flying in 2004.

For the uninitiated, “the red pill” is a reference to the 1999 cult movie The Matrix, where the main character Neo can swallow either the blue pill, and continue to live in his fake, albeit safe, existence, or the red pill and wake up to the terrifying truth.

There are twenty people listening, and most of them would probably say that they have already taken the red pill when it comes to the environment.

Since 2017, Professor Johan Rockström, one of the world’s most renowned climate experts, and his partners have been inviting people to an annual think tank on skis. The invitees are a mix of scientists, entrepreneurs, business leaders and activists. Some are regulars, others – like me – are new. Apart from our love of skiing and mountains, the common denominator is a strong commitment to the environment and the climate.

But maybe it’s time for a new awakening?


Fun times come first

It has been a long, beautiful day in the mountains as we gather in the large meeting room at the Vatnahalsen Hotel. Most people are still wearing ski clothes and their cheeks are rosy and slightly frostbitten. In recent years, the hotel and the steep mountains around it have become a hot-spot for Scandinavian ski touring. In its earlier heyday, in the 1930s, Vatnahalsen was called “Norway’s St. Moritz.” But there’s hardly any resemblance to the Swiss luxury resort today, except for the snow and the mountains.  A single hotel, large and painted red, that’s all. In winter, you can only get here by train and there are no lifts. But there is fantastic off-piste skiing, which can only be accessed with skin-equipped skis or splitboards.

When we set off from the hotel earlier this morning, it was fifteen degrees Celsius below zero. We had been divided into three groups, each with a mountain guide. Our group zig-zagged up between the stunted mountain birches on the approach to Geitanosi, where we came up on the bare mountaintop. Here, we took a short coffee break and began descending a narrow and steep passage on the mountain’s backside. We went up and down another mountain from this point, and worked our way back to the hotel where fresh coffee and waffles awaited. Then, playtime was over.

Hard truths follow

Kevin Anderson says we need to face reality:

“Claiming that we will meet the UN climate goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees compared to the pre-industrial era is either fraud or self-deception.”

“The first major scientific report on climate change came out in 1990. Today, the emissions are over 60 percent higher. You still hear a lot of political rhetoric and optimism about the future. But the trend line tells us that we are heading towards 3 to 4 degrees centigrade within this century. This will be an absolute climate catastrophe for all species, including our own.”

For half an hour, he hammers home statistics and research that paint a bleak picture of the future and of the wealthier parts of the world.

“If the top 10% of emitting individuals globally were to reduce their carbon footprint to the level of an average European citizen, global emissions could be reduced by one third in a matter of a year or two.”

“We can talk about green growth and all this stuff. But it’s meaningless. The only thing that counts is action and systemic change.”

Johan Rockström presents some hard truths.

Planetary boundaries and hockey sticks

The next speaker is Johan Rockström himself.

On the train journey from Stockholm, one of the co-organizers said that Johan Rockström and Kevin Anderson belong to two factions in research: Those who believe in collaboration between academics, politicians, business, and civil society and those who believe that those in power who have created the problems will never really change. Instead, nothing short of a revolution is needed. ‘“It’s good that we get to hear wise representatives from both sides,” he said.

But in fact, we are soon served another red pill. Johan Rockström’s presentation broadens the perspective from climate to the concept of “planetary boundaries.” There are nine of them, including climate change (see box). In fact, the situation is even worse when it comes to biodiversity, for example. Johan Rockström shows a slide entitled “The Great Acceleration” with 24 historical graphs. All of them have almost identical curves: Up to around 1950 they increase linearly, after 1950 they rise steeply.

“Whether we look at global water consumption, fertilization, fish catches, methane levels in the atmosphere, etc., they all have the same shape: Like a hockey stick.”

Johan Rockström is a well-known name internationally. Like Bob Dylan, he is on a Never-Ending Tour, with regular appearances at the UN, the World Economic Forum in Davos and more. It is clear that he has given the same presentation many times before, the message is straightforward, clear, educational – and harsh.

How to create positive tipping points?

The Vatnahalsen think tank is attended by his sons Alex and Isak Rockström, both passionate researchers and skiers. Afterwards, I ask Alex Rockström if he noticed any differences from previous talks.

“I recognize most of it. Except that Dad’s message gets darker every year.”

After dinner we gather in a large room that used to hold dance galas back when Vatnahalsen was “Norway’s St. Moritz.” We discuss the two lectures in groups and the atmosphere is subdued.

True, there are “hockey sticks” with positive developments as well, such as the global development of solar energy. But they are not nearly as numerous. And how will we have enough time before different “tipping points” start to interlock and the changes become beyond human control? Perhaps we are already there?

Johan Rockström says that he usually spends the last third of his talk speaking about solutions and opportunities. To focus on creating hope and energy. But not this time, he explains.

“I already see you as part of the solution, so I didn’t think it was necessary.”

This is nice to hear, but we are still a rather depressed crowd going to our hotel rooms. Yesterday, we took the train for a whole day, today we were up in the mountains for the same amount of time. I am exhausted, yet I lie awake half the night wondering where the hell we are heading.

Educational avalanche rescue

The next day we are back on Geitanosi. Upon reaching a plateau, our group’s mountain guide, Linus Kulstad, leads the obligatory avalanche rescue exercise. Using our avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels, we will search for a buried “skier.” The method used is common to mountain guides around the world, honed over the decades.

“The time factor is key. It’s estimated that a person survives a maximum of ten to fifteen minutes buried under the snow. So, you have to move very quickly and methodically.”

When people die in avalanches, it is common to investigate what went wrong at the time. One of the most common mistakes: Skiers get a huge stress response and forget everything they have learned. They wander around in the snow, searching and digging aimlessly. Or stand apathetically by, watching the minutes tick away.

But now, it’s another sunny, beautiful day. We’re on a plateau and there are no people buried under the snow, just a device. We find it within the desired time limit, using the mountain guide’s method and good teamwork.

The symbolism is almost too obvious. Globally, the avalanche has passed, but there is still hope. If we work together quickly, purposefully, and methodically, the rescue can succeed. But if we act in panic or become apathetic – we’re all but guaranteed to fail.

From problems to solutions

The ski day ends again with waffles, whipped cream, and jam – a Norwegian tradition – in the main meeting room. The subdued atmosphere from last night is gone, people look tired yet satisfied. Skiing aside, maybe the better mood is also because we have been promised two solution-focused presentations.

Pella Thiel is an ecologist, farmer, and co-founder of End Ecocide Sweden. Her talk is about why mass damage and destruction of ecosystems, or “ecocide,” must receive a juridical status as an international crime, along with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

She also shares how this movement has grown from below, from indigenous peoples and the environmental movement in collaboration with personally committed lawyers around the world.

“A few years ago, we were considered naive. Today, Ecocide is being discussed in the media and in parliaments around the world. Several states have already shown their support for this issue,” she tells the group.

The collaboration between grassroots and idealistic lawyers is not unique to the Ecocide movement. Research shows that many social transformations are based on precisely this combination. Opinions may differ on whether the changes have been good or bad, but there are structural similarities between the success of the anti-tobacco and anti-abortion movements in the US, for example.

Nigel Topping and Pella Thiel

A business race to zero

As a young man, Nigel Topping was a dedicated adventurer and climber, spending months in the wilds of Greenland and Patagonia. Later in life, he traded in his shell jacket for suits. But his passion for the mountains and nature remains, he says.

Nigel Topping co-founded We Mean Business, a collaboration between global companies such as IKEA and Nike, and international NGOs. In 2014, We Mean Business launched the concept of Science Based Targets and drove the negotiations at the UN climate summit COP 21 in Paris in 2015. Nigel Topping was later appointed as the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion, and as the UNFCCC’s Global Ambassador on the “Race to Zero” and the “Race to Resilience.”

His approach to creating change differs from Pella Thiel’s. He talks about identifying “positive tipping points” and accelerating change there. About “action architecture,” or how to avoid reinventing the wheel and instead create effective and radical collaborations. And how to get global decision-makers “to align with a mission.”

Both have been part of Johan Rockström’s skiing think tank before.

“To be honest, I also thought Pella’s vision sounded a bit naive when she told me about it five years ago. After listening to her tonight, I am deeply impressed,” says Nigel Topping.

Long slopes, long conversations

We participants literally get to know each other step by step, as we walk and talk side by side up long, gentle slopes. Conversations move freely from how fast the climate is changing here in northern Europe, to, well, anything. We agree that if we had been stuck in a conference room for four days, we may have possibly gotten more done. But on the other hand, we definitely would have felt much worse. In the mountains, nature often demands our full attention. The weather changes quickly, from sunshine to strong winds.

Going up is physically demanding and going down in untouched snow is sometimes a pleasure, or sometimes a struggle. I’m in the same group as Johan Rockström, and he tells me that every think tank is different.

“Group dynamics have a lot of influence, and we as organizers also have different approaches from time to time. Sometimes we have focused on actually producing something, such as a manifesto. Other times, it has been more about thinking creatively.”

However, common to  all the think tanks are two key ideas, which are to communicate the latest research to various key people and to create bridges between different actors, such as the business community and non-profit organizations.

“There is also a third, unspoken purpose: To re-energize everyone by being out in nature,” says Johan Rockström.

Solutions and depressions

The “conference” part of the stay in Vatnahalsen continues to alternate between daring to see problems and finding the solutions. We sit in a circle and discuss, followed by a workshop where we can draw on the group’s experiences for things we are struggling with.

It is clear that there are many high achievers in our midst, who are used to pushing themselves and others.

Brita Staal works as Climate Lead in Smart Innovation Norway and has previously co-founded both Protect Our Winters Norway and Europe, and a tech company that analyzes climate risks. Before the workshop, she emphasizes that we must dare to consider that quick solutions do not necessarily exist, and that we can allow ourselves to feel both climate anxiety and sadness about the rapid change in ecosystems.

In retrospect, she says that for many years she had worked endlessly to raise awareness and create change.

“We need ‘all hands on deck’ to turn things around. But at the same time, you get tired of working a lot with heavy climate issues, both at work and as a volunteer in climate organizations. We live in Lofoten in northern Norway, and I try to limit my work by being in the mountains.”

The Swiss Patrick Frick is in the same group as me on the ski tours. His CV also includes several entrepreneurial ventures, including founding the Global Commons Alliance. Every day I see that he gets a little quieter, but at the same time seems more harmonious.

“I’ve noticed that myself! Like many in the international community focused on the planetary emergency, I’ve been working without a break for many years. Around me I can almost see a collective burnout. We need this so much, the silence in the mountains, the long days of just walking together.”

The reward of untouched snow

On the last evening, we sit in a ring and share what we’ll be taking home with us. Some have ideas that they want to pursue further. “We need a science communication revolution!” But most talk more about the personal, with similar thoughts as Brita Staal and Patrick Frick.

“For me, this is about personal regeneration,” says Keith Tuffley, Global Co-Head of Sustainability and Corporate Transitions at the banking and finance company Citi. Charlotte Kalla, Sweden’s most successful cross-country skier of the 2000s, says, “The situation is much worse than I had realized. I may not be leaving here with hope, but with inspiration.”

There is an old Sami proverb that says, “Nature is a quiet but fair teacher.” I think about this several times during the days in Vatnahalsen.

When doing summit tours with climbing skins, it is important to find a steady and sustainable pace. It is easier to walk together. The route needs to be adapted to the terrain, weather, and other circumstances. It is important to rest and replenish your energy at regular intervals. Otherwise, you will simply run out of steam.

On the last day of skiing, all three groups end up on the same peak. Below us is a perfect slope with a few inches of fluffy, cold loose snow. I see one person after the other skiing down with wide smiles, like children playing.

If sustainability was just one long uphill battle, no one would be able to cope in the end. The key is to find the rewards and the joy – together.


Photos: Gabriel Arthur

Gabriel Arthur
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