Baptism by ice

8 06 2010

Tempting fate is never a good idea. I was so busy gloating about how many lengths I could do that I didn’t see it coming. As Oxford’s finest were leaping off the Magdalene Bridge in a tradition that dates back to the dawn of alcopops, I was preparing to take a road trip. Though, not by road you see, because that wouldn’t be very eco. I took a train to the coast to dive into the depths of Dover harbour. And despair.

Swimming in the sea is nothing like swimming in a pool. I know that because I’ve read it several times since undertaking this challenge. And because I have swum in the sea plenty of times before. I was even in the sea last October. Surely May couldn’t throw any surprises?

Sometimes you are so wrong about things that your own stupidity hits you like a sledgehammer.

The sea is at its warmest at the beginning of September, when it can reach 19C. Which means that it is still fairly temperate in October, probably around 15C. This was my first mistake. Dover harbour on May Day was just 9C.

It’s not cold, it’s character building

To kick off our training, we did two swims, for just 15-20mins, two hours apart. You need that long to recover. During the first swim, I had to be pulled out of the water because all my limbs went numb. On the second swim, the wind picked up and choppy salt water sloshed round my mouth like it was a plughole in a gargantuan bath tub.

And then came the shivers, like being held by the shoulders and shaken violently. Apparently this is normal, you only need to worry when it doesn’t happen. I had to be helped to dress myself. Someone bought me a cup of tea and held it as I drank. In this indignity, I found comfort in the kindness of strangers.

It may have been a lonely journey doing lengths in the pool, but there are literally dozens of people willing to subject themselves to the vagaries of the sea in the name of channel swimming. And thankfully, a handful of volunteers who pick up the pieces when the sea spits you out.

Flirting with hypothermia

After the shakes came the wobble. The moment where I started to think that maybe I was a bit crazy to be doing this. Why didn’t I spend my summer lying on the beach like normal people, instead of flirting with hypothermia? But I felt a bit better when I read this on the website of the Outdoor Swimming Society:

“0-11 degrees: freezing. Jumping in likely to impair breathing in the uninitiated, as breath comes in big jolting grasps and it feels like someone has clamped on an ice neck brace. Water has bite, skin smarts and burns. Limbs soon become weak – 25 metres can be an achievement.”

And of all the people who recoiled on hearing of my water torture, I knew there would be one person who would ‘get it’. The kind of person who subjects themselves to extreme temperatures for professional curiosity. Lloyd is our Head of Global Field Safety at Earthwatch. He’s like a cross between Ray Mears and Colt Severs. He’s exactly the sort of person you would want to have around in a crisis. But there are no crises in Lloyd’s world, only situations. I imagine he’d be pretty handy in one of those too.

Hot is the new cold

You might wonder why I’m banging on about how cold it is, when 2010 is set to be the hottest year on record. The crucial factor is that this represents average global temperatures. So it will not be warmer everywhere. Believe it or not, where you live is not the centre of the universe, but you’d be surprised how many people think it is. Like here in the UK, where our unseasonably cold winter probably did as much to dent public confidence in global warming as Climategate.

So really I should revel in our cold sea, because soon it could be like bathing in the Riviera. Like exam standards and children’s behavior, in a few decades time, swimming the channel will not be the feat it once was. And while part of me would be a tiny bit grateful for the respite, it is cold comfort when you consider the devastating effect on sea levels and marine life.

And somehow, using a little less goose fat doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to do nothing about climate change.


Gimme shelter: the rising tide of homelessness and climate change

31 01 2010

credit: Earthwatch

Homelessness is often seen as someone else’s problem. Over Christmas I decided to make it mine, by trading my traditional family gathering to volunteer for homeless charity Crisis. The non profit relies on a small army of volunteers to provide food, shelter, support and entertainment for hundreds of London’s homeless during the festive break.

People become homeless for varied and complex reasons. And unless you can guarantee that you’ll never face any serious issues with family, relationships, employment, health, abuse, alcohol or drugs, then you may be vulnerable to homelessness at some stage in your life.

We are all said to be just two strikes from the streets.   

Now, our basic right to shelter is under threat from a new phenomenon: climate change. According to the International Organization for Migration 20 million people were made homeless last year as a result of sudden-onset environmental disasters. But that could rise to one billion in the next 40 years as the effects of climate change take hold, testing not only public attitudes but our capacity to provide support and accommodation.

The Pacific island nations, so vocal at Copenhagen, are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Tuluva recorded a 7cm rise in sea levels in the 13 years leading up to 2005. If this doesn’t sound significant, bear in mind that the highest point of the low lying coral atolls – home to 10,000 people – is just 3.7m above high tide. “We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change,” Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga attests. “The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”

In the UK, the threat of climate change and homelessness isn’t seen so much as a crisis, but as a development opportunity.

Hull, in East Yorkshire, which has the misfortune to occupy a long term tenancy on ‘worst places to live in the UK’ polls, could be transformed into the Venice of the North, according to a recent report by The Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Gondolas traversing the Humber may seem terribly cosmopolitan, but it will take more than a civic makeover to help the 10 million people living in flood risk zones who face displacement. Fortunately, Britain has decades rather than days to prepare for the waters to rise, which is just as well, because even developed nations are hopelessly unprepared when it comes to environmental crises.

Over the past ten years, floods have been responsible for more death and destruction in the US than any other natural disaster. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, more than 1,000 people lost their lives and 500,000 residents were forced to flee or take temporary shelter. A year on, less than half had returned.

If we are ill equipped to deal with natural born disasters, some of which, like Katrina, are thought to be exacerbated by climate change, how will we prepare for catastrophes of the man-made kind?

Homes destroyed by freak natural events can be rebuilt. But land blighted by drought, or lost to a rising sea, can no longer support communities. The legacy of unsustainable western lifestyles is not only going to haunt us in the future, it is already having a devastating impact on the developing world.

Building our cities on stilts does not address the underlying causes of climate change, or the inequalities its consequences impose. And while a replica Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) may add some Venetian glamour to Hull, it’s worth remembering, as Byron observed, that the bridge held ‘a palace and prison on each hand’.

In terms of climate change, the more we spend, the more others suffer.

Rolling up our architectural pants will not stem the rising tides. We need a global commitment to setting binding targets to reduce carbon emissions. But the opportunity to bring a meaningful deal to the table in Copenhagen has passed, and with it another chance to prevent millions of people from losing not only the roof over their heads, but a sense of identity, security and community.


COP15: Clueless about carbon?

18 12 2009

credit: Earthwatch Institute

We all know the size of the footprints we leave behind. For the record, mine’s a size 8 (42), which is bigger than many I guess, but I’m tall and I need the ballast or I’d fall flat on my face. My carbon footprint is another matter.

In the U.K., the average person emits 10.92 tons of CO2 — you can almost double that for the U.S. But of course there’s no such thing as the average person. Grassroots campaigns such as 10:10 are doing a great job to build awareness, but the difficulty is working out where to start. It’s easy to track your progress on a diet because you know your weight, but how do you reduce your carbon footprint by 10 percent, if you don’t know what it is in the first place?

Measuring your carbon footprint should be simple. There are dozens of calculators out there to help you with the math, but almost all of them have a major flaw: they are selective with the truth. The U.K. government’s widely advertised Act on CO2 Web site for example, places the carbon blame squarely with home and transport. But it fails to factor in two of the top three causes of an individual’s carbon emissions: recreation and diet (at number one and three, according to Carbon Trust).

Light bulbs, however, feature prominently. So it’s no surprise that a survey by the HSBC Climate Partnership last year, found that consumers rated using energy efficient light bulbs as the biggest contribution they could make to reduce their emissions. But lighting your home accounts for just 1 percent of your carbon footprint. What of the remaining 99 percent?

We are being kept in the dark about changes that will make a real difference. And you can recycle until you are green in the face, but it remains a relatively modest contribution to cutting your carbon count. How you spend your leisure time, heating your home and the food that you eat, are the heavy hitters on the carbon scale. Surprisingly, driving and flying figure way down the top ten, at seven and eight respectively.

Climate change is all about the numbers. Baselines (1990), emission targets (4 percent, 10 percent, 17 percent, 30 percent), CO2 parts per million (350; 387), deadlines (2020, 2050), even climate change conferences. How many people know what COP15 stands for? The clock is ticking and we have just 100 months to save the world, or 8.333333333 years, which doesn’t sound nearly as sexy.

It’s hard not to be dazzled by the data and the trouble with all these numbers is that they are not words. Unless you are fluent in binary, figures are difficult to digest. We need to simplify the message or no one will take any action at all. Not because people choose to defy impending climate doom, but because the science is impenetrable.

The biggest communications challenge with climate change is that it doesn’t make easy reading: It’s more Tolstoy than Twilight.

As science writer Ben Goldacre said last week, “we could discuss everything you needed to know about MMR and autism in an hour. Climate change will take two days of your life.” And the MMR/autism comparison is significant here. Much like the climate science email leaks, which were vindicated by a recent Associated Press investigation, MMR faced a massive scare based on one study which was later discredited. But that didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

It seems we are willing to fly in the face of the weight of scientific evidence when it involves changing behaviour, but when it comes to protecting our own, a lone voice in the research community is enough to make us sit up and listen.

And this is the problem with attitudes towards climate change in the western world. We just don’t see the risk of it around us — yet. This perceived lack of threat translates into little concern or action. Climate change may be causing havoc in the third world, but if it isn’t happening in your back yard, then what’s the worry?

On the eve of a climate change deal or no deal in Copenhagen, the question is not only about governments agreeing the right emissions targets, but how they will effect behaviour change in millions of people. Taxation and rationing have been suggested, but they are unpopular, and with a fickle electorate, politically risky.

Last year, the government launched the world’s first carbon footprint standard for all products in the U.K., tracking the carbon journey of everything from strawberries to steak. But the scheme is currently voluntary, so no one has to do it. And like the early days of nutritional labeling, it may only be the carbon leaner products that boast of their environmental credentials.

Given that imposing change wins no votes and carbon labeling is marginal, perhaps in the future consumers will face a social conscience choice. The kind of graphic images we now see on cigarette packets may be levied on our food, flights and fuel: a visual warning of the consequences of our actions, not on ourselves, but on the planet.

Instead of blackened human lungs, we could see a snapshot of ailing rainforests stamped on every globe traveling, carbon guzzling goods and services we use. A constant reminder that as we recklessly consume, the planet struggles to breathe.

Far fetched? Possibly. The question is, what would it take to change your ways?

Biodiversity: the Cinderella of the environmental agenda

4 12 2009

Training for my channel swim at Oxford University’s Rosenblatt pool, I am humbled by achievement, and that’s before I even enter the gates. The sports complex adjoins the running track where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier for the first time in 1954. I can almost picture him bracing for the line, surrounded by timekeepers and journalists in flat caps with wide open mouths. And the images are in black and white of course, because although the same year heralded another first, ironically for the color tv, techincolor didn’t catch on at the BBC until 1968.

It is a peculiar human condition to desire to be first at something. There is a whole bible, otherwise known as The Guinness Book of Records dedicated to the pursuit of being the first, the fastest, the fittest and even the fattest.

And I am no different when it comes to the competitive spirit: amongst the 1,000 people to have swum the channel, I am hopeful to lay claim to some obscure first. But scouring the list of swimmers and achievements, all the usual suspects have already been bagged. Yvetta Hlavacova has rather selfishly taken two titles, being the fastest woman, as well as the tallest at 6’5”. Knocks my modest 5’10” right into touch.

I’m not even the first person with my relatively uncommon surname to swim the channel. No, despite never having met another Chisholm who is not a close relative, someone has beaten me to that too.

So unless I’m going to set a new record for being the fastest (as unlikely as to be virtually statistically impossible), or perhaps the slowest (much better odds, place your bets now), it seems I’ll have to settle for second place. Or more accurately 1097th place. Taking on this challenge may set me apart from Joe public but amongst channel swimmers I am decidedly average.

But being first isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The human race is facing the dubious honor of being the first species responsible for the greatest mass extinction since a catastrophic event wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretacious.

For the planet’s biodiversity, we are the catastrophic event.

In Neolithic times, scientists estimate that just 20-30 species were becoming extinct every year. The population rocket first fuelled by the success of these early farmers and later by advances in industry, technology and medicine, has sent these numbers into the stratosphere. Today around 20,000-30,000 species are thought to die out each year. In 20 years time, this could be closer to 200-300,000, according to eminent ecologist Professor E O Wilson.

Put simply, the more of us there are, the less there is of everything else.

Darwin, whose Origin of the Species celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, would be turning in his grave. While he made it his life’s work to unravel the secrets of evolution, we threaten to send our fellow creatures on a one way ticket to oblivion.

Many of these species have yet to be documented, which leaves us in the unenviable position of killing things before we have even had a chance to discover them. And you may question the loss of plants and animals we don’t even know exist, but what will be the legacy of their disappearance on the delicate balance between the biodiversity of our planet and the ecosystems that support it?

When it comes to firsts, we fall at the feet of other species. Despite our technology and invention, we are still out paced by animals when it comes to running, swimming, flying and navigation. Even the human dynamo Usain Bolt, has nothing on the cheetah. But the world’s fastest mammal faces a race against extinction. And what of the animals without such good PR?

Take the saola, a species of Asian wild cattle. Never heard of it? Nor had anyone else until 1992. It may not have the poster boy good looks of the polar bear, but it’s no aye-aye either. This striking animal, more antelope than bovine in its features, is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN’s red list. It is being hunted to extinction in its remote habitat in the Annamite Mountains on the border of Lao PDR and Vietnam. At a push, we have just 20 years to save it.

Luckily for the saola, the IUCN has set up a working group to support its conservation. But its future and that of hundreds of thousands of other species, both documented and unknown, hangs in the balance. We face a devastating loss of biodiversity within the blink of an evolutionary eye.

2010 may be designated as its ‘year’, but biodiversity is the Cinderella of the environmental agenda, waiting in the wings as climate change holds the stage. And when the Copenhagen merry-go-round is over and Cinders finally takes her rightful place at the ball, let’s hope enough guests remain to witness her transformation.