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“Some nights I’d wake up and ask myself how much longer my body could keep on going,” says the endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans. “But to shine a light on what’s happening in this part of the world, it required more than a one-day swim – this story required a sustained campaign.”
Every morning, he donned his swimming cap and speedos to plunge into freezing waters, awash with sharp shards of broken ice. As he swam, he heard wind, crashing icebergs and the constant barks of Greenland dogs - which is what the locals call huskies, he tells me.
As we sit in a sunny hotel lounge in Marble Arch, the Illulissat glacier, where Pugh was just days ago, seems worlds away. It is precisely this perceived distance which Pugh hopes to bridge through his pioneering swim. With COP-26 mere days away, he is in London trying to drum up meaningful action before the climate conference.
“COP-26 is the most important conference of our lifetime and I’ll be delivering a message on what I’ve been seeing in the Polar Regions since 2003,” he says. “What I don’t think the public know is the sheer speed and scale of this crisis in the Arctic – it’s the fastest warming area in the world.”
For Pugh, global coalitions aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050 are simply not ambitious enough. Even as he was undertaking the climate swim, the environment around the endurance swimmer was in flux – the Greenland Ice Sheet is one of the many long-suffering victims of the climate crisis, melting at an unprecedented rate.
Suddenly springing out of his seat to come and kneel next to me, Pugh pulls out his phone to show me satellite images of the glacier he promises will “blow your mind”. He meticulously explains the mechanisms behind the rapid movement of the ice, in a manner befitting his weighty title as the UN Patron of the Oceans.
If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt, it would lead to sea levels rising by over seven metres. To put this into context, it would only take a one-metre rise to drown entire cities like London, Tokyo and New York. “It’s only when you see it live that you realise you can’t negotiate with nature,” he says, returning to the sofa opposite me.
Pugh is no stranger to the sea. If anything, he has a peculiar affinity with it, which he says “is impossible not to have” when spending your childhood years in Plymouth, or ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ as it’s often referred to. It is in Tavistock, just outside Plymouth, where 9-year-old Pugh had his first encounter with the powerful force of nature - when the River Tavy overflowed.
“I remember my dad going out to try and salvage the car, and the water was swirling around him . I experienced the devastation of flooding first hand,” he says.
Such entrenched commitment to the ocean seeped into his academic pursuits, as Pugh embarked on a career as a maritime lawyer after studying at the University of Capetown in South Africa and the University of Cambridge in the UK. But Pugh says it was studying in South Africa towards the end of the apartheid which instilled in him a desire to fight for justice and freedom: “When change comes, like it eventually came in South Africa, it comes like a steam train. I want the steam train to arrive in Glasgow for COP-26.”
Since diving into endurance swimming in the early 2000’s, Pugh has accumulated an impressive number of achievements under his belt: he was the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world, as well as being the first to swim across the North Pole.
Despite his years of experience, it’s the 7.8 km climate swim across the Illulissat glacier which he has found the most challenging – a fitting tribute to the scale of the climate problem he is trying to address. “The science is very, very clear. We are running out of time,” Pugh says, before launching into a series of vivid similes to demonstrate his point.
I want you to imagine looking out of the window at 4am in the morning and seeing a glacier crumbling like a meringue, leading to a motorway of ice which will pour out into the sea.
Pugh is calling for 30% of the world’s oceans to become Marine Protected Areas, to make them more resilient to climate change. So far, 86 nations have made that commitment.
Both humans and the planet operate in what Pugh terms a “narrow band of comfort, or thermal regulation.” Only a few degrees separate clinical hyperthermia and hypothermia, terms he is familiar with owing to his regular exposure to zero-degree water - which he says was “almost intolerable to swim in”.
While Pugh’s core body temperature was able to regulate – albeit with the help of the three hot water bottles and steaming chocolate drink he was greeted with on the boat – if the earth warmed by 2 degrees, we would suffer from widespread water scarcity, crop failures, and increased flooding.
To ease the increasing bleakness underpinning our conversation, I ask him what the general public can do to help protect the oceans. Before responding, Pugh thanks me sincerely for asking the question. “Every single purchase we make is a decision about our future. If the 7.7 billion people on this earth make environmentally friendly decisions on a daily basis, that creates meaningful change,” he says.
Before we part ways, Pugh brings my attention towards his mantra: “ice is as essential to life on earth as the air we breathe, " he says, following up with the pithier strapline, “ice is life”. Though being amongst the oldest ice on earth made Pugh feel like “a voice in the wilderness”, here in London, before the most important climate conference of our lifetimes, Pugh says he is a “voice for the oceans”. For me, the UN Environment Assembly and the numerous political, business and cultural leaders he has spoken with, he is simply a voice worth listening to.