Adventurer, doctor and polar explorer Jean-Louis Étienne is well known to many, particularly in France. Now 71 years old, he is committed to protecting the environment and the climate and, over the years, has become part of innumerable projects and expeditions to study the earth's climate and life forms. He uses his knowledge to sensitise the public, in particular to climate change in the polar regions.
Étienne gained international attention, above all through his role as co-leader on the Transatlantica Expedition, which made the longest land crossing of the Antarctic by dog sled in 1989/90 – a total of 6,300 kilometres. INSIDEista met Jean-Louis Étienne at the Congress of the French social housing company, Union Sociale Habitate (USH), and talked to him about his views, visions and plans.
Mr Étienne, you have taken part in numerous expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. What fascinates you about the polar regions?
My yearning for the polar regions goes back a long, long way: I love the winter, I love the snow. I have always liked the cold of the poles. It touches me in a very special way. Lying on the beach and exposing my body to the sun is just not for me. Where I feel at home is in unspoilt nature. It is the search for solitude. You search for remote nature and experience very profound encounters with yourself. It is a journey far away from tourists and crowds of people. I live in Paris – that is good for planning my projects, but to provide a balance, I always need the peace and quiet of nature in the polar regions.
What has been the greatest moment for you so far?
There are so many of them that I simply cannot list them all. It starts with the moment when you have an idea and you say to yourself: “Yes, I’ll do that!”. You are driven by this idea, you literally feed on it and live with it. During my expeditions, it is the interpersonal moments. Friendships for life are forged on these adventures. They are unbelievably intense encounters. And then there are of course the great moments of success. Just arriving at the North Pole alone, that is a moment of great liberation. You liberate yourself from this project with your success. A project that has already taken two years or more – from the lengthy search for funding, through many highs and lows until the successful completion of the project: now you have managed it and can be free again.
And the most critical moment?
On the ice all you need is one false step and you’re dead. Those are the most tense moments.
The worst moment is when you are fighting for your life. The moment when a huge avalanche rolled towards me in the Himalayas and only missed by pure chance. The moment when I was walking at the North Pole on ice that was getting thinner and thinner and when I knew: one false step and you are dead. Those are the most tense moments.
Your latest project is the Polar Pod. The platform is driven only by the current and renewable energies and will therefore be the basis for the first zero-emission oceanographic expedition. How did you get the idea?
During my reading, I keep encountering the same problems with regard to the “Southern Ocean”: without local people we cannot collect enough data to uncover the secrets of this place a little. It is very far away from all other places on this earth and it is expensive to get there. Apart from a few short expeditions in the Antarctic summer, the region is not being explored. So the question was clear for me: is there anything that people can stay on and observe this ocean for a year in safety? During my research I came across an old American ship, “the Flip”, which gave me my inspiration. Ideally we would like to construct the ship powered by alternative means in 2018-2019 and then be in the Southern Ocean for at least two years, so 2020 and 2021.
You say that actually something serious will have to happen before people understand that by their behaviour they are doing lasting damage to the earth and in the long term causing changes to the climate. Do you think that this year with its storms and climate catastrophes was enough to make us understand?
There is this tendency, yes. However, the problem is that the climate does not have an on/off switch. We have to continually commit ourselves and do something now in order to see a result in decades from now. The “climate machine” is unbelievably sluggish. The complications that we are seeing today are the result of a whole century of excessive consumption of coal and oil. If we now want to change the composition of the gases in the atmosphere, it will take a very long time. This combination of “action today, result in a long time” is naturally very, very difficult, especially for politicians, not only for climate protection. Today 95% of our transport is based on oil, and coal is still the greatest resource in the world for covering energy requirements, also because of countries such as China and India. We are a very long way away from a solution and the change will take a great deal of time. We think far too little about our energy consumption: energy is there so we use it.
How can this energy awareness best be changed?
More and more is happening here: education and information are extremely important. The subject is meanwhile being taught at many schools and we are slowly developing an awareness for energy and the climate. Many regions and communities are now producing energy themselves and managing it locally. We are moving in the direction of “own consumption”, at least in the local and private sectors. And the more we become independent producers and consumers, the better we understand that energy is a precious resource. After all, if I can meet my own consumption requirements with the energy I produce myself, I look very carefully at my consumption – and that is the first step. I am convinced that in a few decades we will reach the stage where we can manage our entire private life, our home consumption and private transport with renewable energies. For big industry that will unfortunately take even longer.
You meet many politicians and are a highly regarded expert on climate change. Do you have the feeling that today’s generation of politicians understands the risks of climate change better and knows what has to be done?
Nowadays there is a great understanding for and political action against climate change, with the exception of Donald Trump perhaps. Basically, however, people are working everywhere on saving energy. That is often for economic reasons but that’s okay as it means that more people are getting more involved. We humans simply need these economic drivers sometimes in order to work best.