Lewis Pugh’s cold war on climate change

2010-04-26 00:00

IMAGINE telephoning the British prime minister from an Arctic ice floe and on finding he’s not at home, leaving a message for him to ring back. That’s what environmental campaigner and pioneering cold-water swimmer Lewis Pugh did.

“It was in September 2008 and I was kayaking in the Arctic ice packs,” he recalls. “I was so shocked at what I was seeing I phoned Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. He was out so I gave them my satellite phone number and said ‘Please get him to ring me’. When he did I said: ‘Tony, I think we’ve wholly underestimated the speed of climate change’ and I told him what I was looking at.”

Pugh was looking at the same piece of ice he had seen back in 2007. “Then, it had been three metres thick and now, 15 months later, the same piece of ice was one metre thick.”

Six months later, Blair appointed the first climate-change minister and announced the decision to decrease carbon emissions by 60% by 2050.

“What I saw was a graphic illustration of climate change, whether that influenced his decision, I don’t know,” says Pugh. “But, as they say, if you want to know about fish you ask a fisherman and I spend a lot of time in the Arctic and I see changes occurring.”

Pugh had got to know Blair after his most famous cold-water swim at the North Pole in 2007 which drew attention to the melting ice packs. “That swim got so much coverage and I was called by the prime minister to discuss climate change.”

It wasn’t their first meeting. In 2006, when Pugh swam the entire length of the Thames, he popped out of the river to visit Blair at Number 10 Downing Street and to appeal for Britain to move towards a low-carbon economy.

Pugh was born in England and came to South Africa with his parents at the age of 10. Educated at Camps Bay High School (he married former class-mate Antoinette Malherbe last year) he then studied law at the University of Cape Town and at Jesus College, Cambridge, in Britain, subsequently working as a maritime lawyer in London before donning his Speedo and lobbying world leaders to look after the environment.

Asked what place he thinks of as home Pugh responds: “I’m a soutpiel in the nicest possible way — I spend time in London and Cape Town and most of my summer in the Arctic.”

Pugh did his first cold-water swim at the age of 17 — he’s now 40 — swimming from Robben Island to Cape Town. Then he swam the English Channel. He has since done long-distance swims in all five oceans — the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, Arctic and Southern — but he’s best known for his pioneering cold-water swims which saw him dubbed “the human polar bear”, all undertaken in accordance with Channel Swimming Association rules in nothing but Speedo swimming trunks, cap and goggles.

Pugh’s next swimming expedition looks to be his toughest yet. In May, he will do a one- kilometre swim in a glacial lake on the Khumbu Glacier on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest. “I am concerned about what’s happening to the Himalayas,” he says, where, thanks to global warming, temperatures have risen by one degree Celsius and the glaciers are melting.

“Several of the world’s great rivers — the Ganges, the Indus, the Mekong and the Yangtze — all rely on a constant supply of water from the Himalayas. If the glaciers melt, hundreds of thousands of people’s lives will be at risk.

“In an area where the major powers — China, India and Pakistan — have nuclear capability the lack of a constant water supply is a recipe for disaster. It’s not just international, but national. For example, in Bangladesh if one farmer doesn’t have water because a farmer upriver is using it all up, there will inevitably be conflict.

“Everything is linked to climate change,” says Pugh. “We have now learnt to accept there is a global economic climate, that what happens on Wall Street affects London, Paris and the world. We have to relate the same way to climate change and realise that when something happens in the Antarctic or to a glacier in the Himalayas, it affects all of us.”

Pugh says that the failure of negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 was an “unmitigated disaster”. Now all hopes for a legally binding climate-change treaty are pinned on the next United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Mexico at the end of this year. “In Mexico they must get it right,” says Pugh.

Getting it right is Pugh’s main object when preparing for a swim like the one scheduled for May 23 on Mount Everest. Pugh says that he owes his past successes to acclimatising to the expected conditions of the swim, training hard and “over the years I’ve built up a support team that’s magnificent”.

The team includes Tim Toyne Sewell as head of expeditions, a former major general in the British Army and commander of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst; well- known University of Cape Town sports scientist, Tim Noakes; and Jorgen Amundsen, a descendant of the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, one of Pugh’s heroes. “They are the crème de la crème of the expedition world and I never want to let them down, they really inspire me.”

But perhaps Pugh’s biggest ally is his apparently unique ability to raise his core body temperature by nearly two degrees before entering the freezing cold water. Noakes has termed this phenomenon “anticipatory thermogenesis”. “We don’t know precisely what the mechanism is,” says Pugh. “Is it physical? Is it training? Is it psychological? It’s rather like a Pavlovian response to the thought of cold water even before I get into the water.”

It’s known that Tibetan Buddhist monks sitting in extreme cold in meditative states can raise their body temperature but they are reacting to an existing condition. Pugh’s response is triggered before he enters the cold water.

Mind over matter clearly plays a role and Pugh recalls that just before his first one-kilometre cold-water swim he said to his mind coach David Becker: “If it goes pear-shaped get me out at 500 metres.”

“He said something that influenced me profoundly: ‘If you are going for one kilometre, under no circumstances do you get out at 500 metres ... There is nothing more powerful than a made-up mind’.

“When you give yourself another option of getting out at 500 metres you confuse the sub-conscious,” says Pugh. “It is as though you are planning for victory and defeat at the same time. When you get in the water you must be certain you are going in one direction. You get in with a made-up mind and you commit. Secondly, you think about what you are thinking about. If you think ‘it’s cold, I can’t breathe’, then that is what will happen. Think instead ‘there is no other place I would rather be’ — in effect, you con the mind.”

His swim on the Khumbu Glacier will call on all Pugh’s resources, mental and physical. “I think it will be the hardest swim I’ve done,” he says. “The water in the Arctic was minus 1,7, while the water in this lake is minus 2,7. It’s also a freshwater lake so there will be no buoyancy, plus it’s not at sea level, it’s at 5 000 metres, so it will be challenging to breathe.”

But there is one challenge that Pugh is happy to be without. “This is the first swim I’ve done that I’m not potentially part of the food chain. That’s a change.” In the past he’s encountered crocodiles, hippopotamuses, sharks, leopard seals and polar bears.  “I don’t enjoy swimming near any of them. Polar bears can come out of nowhere and they swim twice as fast as us.”

Given the demands of such swims how much longer can Pugh do them? “I told a friend I will get to 100 and have a swim on my last day — a cold-water swim in the morning and then go to sleep in the afternoon.”

He reflects on the question a moment longer. “To be honest, I don’t think I can do extreme swims for much longer.  The reason I swim now is to carry a message, but I will always continue to swim as recreation, it’s my passion. When I am in the water I feel that I am connected to the divine.”

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