By Erica Dingman
Few people live as close to a carbon-free life as Dario Schwörer. Sailing the seven seas and climbing the highest peaks of all seven continents, the Top to Top Global Climate Expedition, founded by Dario and his wife Sabine, is the first of its kind. With all sails set, reliant on wind, the best available data, and an intimate knowledge of nature—which he calls a “seventh sense”—Dario has circumnavigated the world aboard the sailboat Pachamama. On land he travels on foot or by bicycle to share his knowledge about climate change, reaching out to both adults and children. As an explorer, climate activist, and Swiss climatologist, his travels have put him in a unique position to conduct fieldwork for scientists, universities, and research organizations. His mission is to boost what he calls our “moral obligation to our children to protect them, and that means preparing for and tackling climate change.”
While working as a mountain guide in Switzerland, Dario watched his “office degrade rapidly” and decided to devote his life to environmental activism. In 2000 he and Sabine embarked on a four-year voyage to find innovative solutions to protect, preserve, and conserve the planet. Now, 17 years later, Dario and Sabine, together with their six children, have exchanged ideas with inhabitants of the world’s most remote regions and spread their first-hand knowledge about the effects of climate change around the world.
Dario and I first met at the fifth annual Arctic Circle Assembly held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in early October 2017, where we both participated on a panel, “Creative Approaches to Communicating Climate Change.” In contrast to policy or technically driven discussions, the aim of this panel was to address the diverse ways in which creativity, culture, and climate change intersect. Unlike media reports on the latest scientific findings or record-low Arctic sea ice extent, which seem distant and abstract, art has a visceral impact that can help explain that which we cannot easily understand. Art that establishes dialogue with an audience can be a powerful means of connecting the human experience with nature. In Dario’s case, his family’s life can be considered an act of creativity: Their nomadic, nearly carbon-free lifestyle connects cultures and the natural environment with the greater message of mitigating and adapting to a changing global climate.
For journeys he cannot make by sailboat, by bike, or on foot, Dario’s travel arrangements are far from straightforward. Speaking with him by phone prior to the Assembly, the question came up as to how he was going to travel the 266 miles to Reykjavik from Akuryri, the town in northern Iceland where his sailboat is moored. A carbon-intense flight was out of the question, as was a gas-fueled car drive. His plan to travel by electric car fell through, so he hitched a ride.
When I spoke with him more recently, we discussed Dario’s travels through the Northwest Passage in 2016.
“It’s hard to define the starting point,” said Dario, “since part of the measure is picking up provisions for the voyage ahead,” first in San Diego and then Hawaii before heading north to Alaska and on to the Arctic Circle. “When you look at the definition of the [Northwest Passage] then you can say that it starts at the Arctic Circle, which is 66°33′ north of the equator. We crossed the Arctic Circle in the Chukchi Sea … going north on Aug. 5, 2016, and crossed it again going south on Sept. 7, 2016.”
“We were the first boat to sail the Northwest Passage going though Fury and Hecla Strait, covering 3076 nautical miles in 34 days,” he continued. “Technically the distance would be shorter (than the traditional route around Baffin Island), but we had to tack against the wind from time to time.” As with all of their voyages, the Pachamama is powered only by wind, with the assistance of a small diesel engine for docking purposes only.
Coincidentally this Top to Top expedition occurred just prior to the first Arctic voyage of the Crystal Serenity, by far the largest ship to travel through the Northwest Passage. Dario’s impression was less than positive. “My opinion, which I think I share with most Inuit we met, is that it’s just a disaster. The treasure is the silence that you have up there.” He went on: “Inuit see a lot of wisdom in silence. When the silence is broken you lose wisdom.”
Dario observed that silence being broken in Fort Ross, Nunavut, an uninhabited former trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Today the post is used as a shelter for Inuit hunters, researchers, and small boat travelers passing through. But it was also a stopover point for the Crystal Serenity, a cruise ship carrying over 1,000 passengers. Already ashore when the ship arrived, one of Dario’s sons called out, “There’s a mountain moving! Come and watch!” It was the cruise ship off in the distance. “Soon after that you had this invasion of these two helicopters shuffling all these passengers to this Hudson’s Bay Company post,” Dario recalls. “First there were these guides running around taking position. It was like Vietnam. Then the tourists came. It was crazy.”
The effects of tourism were further emphasized at Cambridge Bay, where the Schwörers became friends with an Inuit family who hosted them for a week. One member of the family works at the library and told Dario about the financial burden imposed on the town by a cruise ship that arrived in 2015. “They all came to the library to use the internet,” which was free for public use. “That was a huge bill for the community.” The library also has a small museum, which featured an exhibit about their culture. “Nobody made a donation, so this year they said ‘please make a donation.’ It’s a cost, you know.” She went on to tell Dario that they had a lengthy email exchange with the cruise ship operator, who “finally made a donation of $500, which is ridiculous when you see all these people entering the museum.”
According to some accounts, the Crystal Serenity was well prepared to minimize its impact on the communities and environments it visited. But there are still numerous reasons for concern, not the least of which is the potential for oil spills and the adverse effects on ecosystems. Despite the decrease in Arctic sea ice that allows for journeys like this one, weather remains unpredictable and severe storms are on the uptick. Moreover, the noise of the ship affects wildlife migration patterns.
These types of issues—and their particular impact on northern indigenous peoples—have been a source of ongoing concern for decades, but were first debated in Canada in the 1970s. In what could be considered a watershed moment for Canadian indigenous peoples—Inuit, First Nations, and Métis—the 1977 Mackenzie Pipeline Inquiry was characterized by some as “Canada’s Native Charter of Rights.” Commissioned by the Canadian government, Justice Thomas R. Berger led this extensive inquiry into the environmental, cultural, and economic implications of the impending pipeline, but the report was also interpreted as a broad inquiry into the relationship between northern indigenous peoples and the “white world.”
In his opening statement Berger wrote, “I have tried to indicate the depth and richness of aboriginal cultures … and their right to command our respect. The North has been a homeland to the native people for thousands of years.” He went on to say, “They are seeking means of earning a living from the land and participating in the wage economy without becoming entirely dependent on wage income. They want to achieve a measure of control over their own lives and their land to ensure that their communities remain essentially native communities.”
In contemporary terms Berger’s view on respect for northern peoples and the wage economy is reflected in Dario’s relationship with the places and people he meets. “We see ourselves as visitors wherever we go,” he says, and he views the Inuit as “masters of adaptation.” But, “To keep a society alive it’s important to work. I think it’s very complex, and I don’t say I have a solution for that, but climate change makes it even more complex. I think that’s the biggest threat.”
Over the last 17 years Dario and his family have become ambassadors of cultural exchange, collecting knowledge about places and people most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Through the power of the internet Dario connects students from remote locations so “they feel as though they are a part of a global movement.” Along the way he and his family have made friends with adults and children alike, a quality that is invaluable in a world increasingly defined by borders and division. Climate change knows no borders. Our generation will need to grapple with this reality if we are to take grand steps toward drastically reducing our environmental footprint.
Erica M. Dingman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and director of Arctic in Context.