I recently visited the Norwegian Arctic, something that always brings great joy to my heart. But this time, I returned very disturbed. I am trying to make sense of a great contradiction. And I am struggling to understand how Norway can be so seemingly oblivious to the damage that drilling for oil and gas in this region will do to their image and standing in the world.
I have always seen Norway as a moral leader, with a long tradition of helping people in need. From the work of Fridtjof Nansen repatriating refugees after WWI, to Norway’s work in fighting against Apartheid in South Africa, you will find Norwegian peace negotiators wherever there is conflict around the world.
My first introduction to Norway happened long before I came to swim in her waters. It was when I was a young boy, listening to my father’s cousin, Carey Heydenrych, tell his WWII stories. The epic tale of his attempted flight from a POW camp would later be made into the classic film “The Great Escape” starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. But I first heard it from Carey himself, and it left a lasting impression.
Carey was born in 1922, just two years after my father. When he left school he apprenticed as a mining engineer in Johannesburg. He didn’t have to sign up when the war broke out; there was no conscription in South Africa. Even though he was of part German descent, he joined the Royal Air Force and went to Britain to become a reconnaissance pilot.
Carey was stationed in Scotland from where he would undertake numerous reconnaissance missions along the Norwegian coast, looking for German warships. On one of his flights, he spotted three enemy ships near Kristiansund and launched an attack. His plane was shot down, he was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III camp, in modern-day Poland.
The POWs’ escape involved digging three different tunnels – Tom, Dick and Harry. Carey was one of the men digging Harry.
When the time came to escape, my father’s cousin was one of the last to enter the tunnel – and that saved his life. When the guards discovered an escape was underway, they sounded an alarm. Carey heard gunfire above ground and managed to crawl back into the camp. Of the 76 escapees, only three POWs managed to get to freedom. The remainder were rounded up – and, as an example, the Gestapo executed 50 of them, including three Norwegian pilots.Carey would still endure a forced march through the severe winter of 1945, ahead of the approaching Red Army before his war finally ended. Many of his close friends and colleagues were not as lucky.
From the time I first heard his story, I admired Carey for his tenacity. He never gave up, and that helped him survive against the odds. But I also admired him for something else: his moral compass. When it came to making the hard decisions, he chose to fight for what was right.
There was one other indelible impression Carey left me with, for which I will always be grateful. Besides enthralling me with his wartime tales, he alerted me to the beauties of the Norwegian coastline. He described snow-capped mountains, majestic fjords and immense glaciers. I couldn’t wait to see them for myself, but it would take many years before I would visit Norway. When I did, I immmediately fell in love with the country and its people.
Home from Home
Norway became my second home in my early days as a cold-water swimmer. I spent many summers in the Norwegian Arctic, and my love for the environment blossomed here. From the start I always had Norwegians in my support team. And when I swam across the North Pole in 2007 to highlight the melting of the Arctic sea ice, I chose Roald Amundsen’s grandnephew to ski beside me.Last month I returned to the Arctic, a decade after that landmark swim, to see how the region had changed. I can only say that I was shocked by what I saw.
In 2005 when I last trained outside Longyearbyen the sea temperature was 3°C. Last month it was 10°C. I went up to Spitsbergen’s Monaco and Magdalene Glaciers, and could hardly recognise them because they had retreated so much.
Global gets Local
I am deeply worried by what I have seen in the Norwegian Arctic. I’ve been swimming in cold water for many years. Ice is a substance I know well. I am not a climate scientist, but what I have seen looks like runaway climate change.
The impacts of this need to be spelt out: It will make parts of the world uninhabitable. It will bring storms and floods and mass migrations. The refugee crises will worsen with the potential of increased conflict over limited resources. At the most basic level, climate change will affect our supply of food and cause water shortages.
Some nations will be more vulnerable than others, either because of their geographic location or their inability to adapt. These include low-lying islands, cities like Miami and London, and countries like South Africa and Bangladesh.
No one is safe from climate change. Which is why I struggle to understand Norway’s desire to open up the Lofoten Islands and Barents Sea to drilling for oil and gas, acts that can only accelerate climate change. How can a country of conscience, a country that curates the Nobel Peace Prize, allow this to happen?Crisis of Conscience
Norway has done incredible work investing in and adopting renewable energy. She has shown that, just because a country was built on oil and gas, it doesn’t have to continue that way. There is wisdom in knowing when to change.
But the bottom line is that drilling for fossil fuels in the face of runaway climate change is reckless and morally wrong.
Take a Stand
Not all ethical issues are black and white, but this one is clear-cut. Climate change is the defining issue of our generation.
There are no half measures: you either drill or you don’t. You are either part of the solution, or a cause of the problem.
During the last world war, young men and women came from all over the globe to help defend Norway. Like my cousin, they did not have to. They heeded your call for help in your time of need. Now Norway seems intent on exacerbating a global crisis, through which vulnerable nations, who have done little to cause climate change, will suffer disproportionately. If Norway does not heed our calls for help, I fear history will judge it very harshly.There will be no Great Escape from runaway climate change, unless we turn away from fossil fuels immediately. As a starting point, that means halting prospecting for any new oil and gas, and moving to alternatives, and at the same time using the considerable resources at your disposal to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
My question to Norway is: are you with us or against us?
Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans
Pics via Jason Roberts and Kelvin Trautman