When I called up Erlend Moster Knudsen on Monday, the climate scientist already had run more than 21 miles since morning – and was expecting to complete a marathon by nightfall.
That’s more than 26 miles, or about 42 kilometers.
A true feat for anyone. In any circumstance. On any day.
But Knudsen, a 29-year-old who holds a Ph.D. in Arctic climate studies, and who is trying to raise awareness about the plight of the Arctic as the world warms, has been running similarly batty distances almost every day since August 3. He’s carrying a backpack that weighs more than 30 pounds (14 kilos), stuffed with food and a sleeping bag. And consider the location: His trek began in Tromsø, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. The plan: Keep running, with a few detours, to Paris.
That’s where world leaders will meet in December to try to sign an agreement to limit climate pollution. If Knudsen makes it there by December 5, as planned, he will have run 2,500 kilometers, or 1,500 miles. And, more importantly, he told me, he’ll have collected dozens of stories from people living in the Arctic, where temperatures are warming about twice as fast as anywhere else.
“I really feel that I owe it to them to make it to Paris,” he told me by phone, about a day’s run (for him) north of Bergen, Norway, some 1,800 kilometers into the trip. “I’m the one running it, but I’m running with the messages of so many people – people who put all their hope in me. They believe this is actually possible and now is the chance to make a change. And it really is. We have a great chance in Paris to make things right and to put things in the right direction.”
Knudsen isn’t the only one making an aerobically ambitious pilgrimage to Paris for what is perhaps the most important climate change meeting the world has ever held. As world leaders gather there to try to figure out how to stop global warming short of 2 degrees Celsius, measured as an increase in average temperatures since the industrial revolution, these climate pilgrims will continue to converge on the French capital from seemingly all directions and distances.
A group from Sarayaku, Ecuador, an indigenous community in the Amazon that successfully fended off oil extraction on their land, is trying to figure out how to ship one of their canoes to France, so they can paddle it down the Seine, and into Paris, according to Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program director for Amazon Watch. Other indigenous groups from the Pacific Northwest in the United States are expected to join them. A Filipino man, Yeb Saño, who gained international attention in November 2013 when he pressed global leaders to act on climate change after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, is walking across Europe, having started with a blessing from the Pope in Rome on September 30. (“He flashed a really enchanting smile, and held my hand for a long moment,” Saño told me by phone from Florence, Italy, where he was on a short break).
And, as if that’s not enough, a friend of Knudsen’s is cycling from the Southern Hemisphere to the Paris talks. Daniel Price started in New Zealand and plans to arrive at the so called COP21 meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the same time as Knudsen.
Price currently is biking across China, according to his website.
Together, they call their journey “Pole to Paris.”
Sure, you could see these climate pilgrimages as meaningless attention grabbers – or, worse, as wastes of fossil fuels, since most of the trips involve some sort of airplane or boat travel. (Knudsen, for what it’s worth, is paying to offset the emissions from his flight to Arctic Norway, and he is traveling alone, by foot, rather than with a support car, because of the emissions associated with driving.)
But such cynicism misses the point.
Without swift action to curb fossil fuel use, and lessen the effect of climate change, the world will be rapidly careening toward an almost unlivable future. If these pilgrims are able to capture the world’s attention, and help lend a moral voice for climate action, they’ve succeeded. Hell, even if they get one or two people they meet en route to see climate change in a more urgent light, that’s a win. Too often this is a topic we’re reticent to discuss – both because it’s big and scary and also, especially in the United States, because it’s politically divisive, however needlessly so.
These pilgrims are using novel, adventurous and headline-grabbing means to try to nudge the Paris talks – and the public discourse on climate, more broadly – in a better direction.
That should be applauded.
Plus, I love the fact that Knudsen is using his run down the spine of Norway as a rare chance to meet people who already are living in a notably warmer world.
He told me about one encounter with a Sami woman in northern Norway, which is a group known to herd reindeer. The woman told him that younger reindeer have been starving to death in recent years because layers of ice are forming in the snow, making it hard for the reindeer to eat the vegetation beneath winter snowdrifts. Snow that used to stay soft and cold all winter is now intermittently thawing and freezing, Knudsen said, creating layers of ice that block the edible vegetation.
“The fact that we are messing so much with nature, to me, is just alarming,” he said.
The trek has been both physically and emotionally exhausting.
“It’s pretty tough to motivate yourself to run day after day no matter what the circumstances are, no matter how your legs feel,” Knudsen told me.
But it hasn’t stopped him.
“What has really helped me continue on is the people I’ve met along the way,” he said. “They’ve been giving me food or a warm shower. Some people really just give me nice words.”
Climate negotiators should take a cue from Knuden’s tenacity, and the Arctic’s generosity.
The Paris talks likely won’t cure the world of its fossil fuel addiction.
But they can and should put us on the right path.
Once we’re there, we just have to keep running.