Explorer who has trekked to both the North and South Poles is dedicated to saving the pristine continent of ice and snow, writes Mabel Sieh
It is vast, empty and often threatening. It is the world's fifth-largest continent. It is the coldest, the driest and the windiest continent, too. It is Antarctica. Twice the size of Australia, the 14 million square kilometres of ice covering the continent contain 90 per cent of the world's ice and 70 per cent of its fresh water.
'It is [very] cold. Trying to stay warm takes a lot of time and energy,' says Robert Swan, the first man to have walked to both the North and South Poles. His goal is to save the Antarctic.
'The worst [thing about it] is that it wants you dead, every day. But the best would be the colours. You'd think it is all white, but it's not,' says the 53-year-old Englishman.
Swan calls it 'the last great wilderness on earth'.
'It is my life goal to save Antarctica, and I will work to protect the environment till I die.'
The idea of such a grand mission started when he was just a boy.
'It was Christmas Day and I was 11,' Swan recalls. 'I was glued to the screen, watching the classic Scott of the Antarctic on BBC. The story of [the English explorer] Robert Falcon Scott's brutal struggle to be the first to reach the South Pole became my obsession. I asked myself: could I do that?' And he spent the next two decades finding out.
Swan tried all possible ways to raise money for the trip. He worked odd jobs, such as being a taxi driver in South Africa. He borrowed money to fly to New Zealand, spending the night under a tree outside the airport because he could not afford a hotel.
'I jumped through a lot of hoops to try to get there. Eventually, when I was 18, I was allowed to join the Royal British Antarctic Survey team and spent my first year there doing mostly grunt work,' he says.
By 1992, Swan had completed the walks to both the North and the South Poles.
That year, at the first World Summit for Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, world leaders appointed him to undertake a 10-year global and local environmental mission involving industry, business and young people.
Swan reported back at the second World Summit in 2002, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, he committed to a further 10-year mission to inspire young people to become sustainable leaders and promote the use of renewable energy.
In 2003, he set up the 2041 expedition team and organised the first corporate Antarctic expeditions, teaching teamwork and leadership through positive participation and missions. 'I want to encourage the re-passage of the international treaty protecting the Antarctic from development when it is up for re-negotiation in 2041.'
He has taken young people from all over the world to the Antarctic to witness effects of climate change.
In 2007, his team finished building E-base: the first education station in Antarctica powered entirely by renewable energy. From there, the team broadcasts to schools and universities worldwide, and demonstrates clean technology and energy-saving techniques.
'If everyone lived as you're living in Hong Kong, it would take five planets to sustain life on earth. You must respect the place you are in, or it will kill you,' he says.
'I would ask you to consider how you are using energy, to do the basic things like turning off your lights. The most important thing is to be positive.'
Robert Swan will be in Hong Kong to speak at the International Conference on Climate Change organised by Civic Exchange in November. For details, visit: climate.dialogue.org.hk
Go to www.2041.com to learn about Swan's expeditions and E-base in Antarctica.