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Pole to Paris

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To put that question to climate scientists Erlend Moster Knudsen and Daniel Price, would result in an extraordinary tale of a double odyssey across the face of the earth. 

Leaving from opposite ends of the world - Erlend on foot and Dan on a push bike – they planned to battle unforgiving terrain and weather extremes to notch up a collective 13,000 kilometers that would get them to Paris in time for the now legendary climate conference.  

It would be an expensive trip, largely financed by themselves, but with contriubtions from a number of individual sponsors.
 
Their mission was clear. As they ran and biked through the unpredictable elements, they would do whatever they could to spread the word that climate change is real, and will have catastrophic consequences unless there is a concerted global effort to prevent it. And that means inspiring ordinary people to take action.
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Dan was the first to set off for Paris. He officially began biking in April 2015, in the eastern Australian city of Brisbane. His route was ambitious by any standards, and would take him across the continent, up to Indonesia, through several other Southeast Asian states, and on to Bangladesh, China, Mongolia and Russia before crossing into Europe.
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Three months later, Erlend got out his trainers, packed his rucksack and embarked on his unsupported run from the northern Norwegian city of Tromso. He was planning to cover 2,500 kilometers in a few months. We'll catch up with him later, but for now, will try and keep up with Dan whose arduous journey began when he was doing his PhD.
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Though there are many ways in which the Welsh scientist could pass on that sense of urgency, he chose to do it by cycling for 80 to 100 kilometers a day, talking to people affected by climate change, telling their stories and giving talks along the way.

Having never done even a moderate cycle tour before, and laden with everything he would need for seven months on the road, Dan's journey was a departure in every sense. After several wrong turns and one tumble, he headed north to find out how climate change is affecting Australia's east coast.
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In Cairns, Daniel spoke to scientists researching
the Great Barrier Reef, the largest in the world. Recent surveys show El Nino and global warming have caused an unprecedented bleaching event, turning once colorful swaths of coral teeming
with fish, to a lifeless bone-white.
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Acidification resulting in coral bleaching is not the only problem facing the ocean. Another growing concern is plastic and the irresponsible way in which people dispose of it. All over the world.

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Bottles for Bali

It's the same story on the fabled Indonesian island paradise of Bali. With its rapidly growing population, which now stands at 250 million, Indonesia faces a host of environmental problems including coastal erosion and rising sea levels. And Bali is not immune to those.  

The great mass of plastic pollution there, which is so bad in places that to swim in the sea is quite literally to swim an assault course, is an issue that requires urgent attention.

Some efforts are underway to tackle the situation, and Dan spoke to Mitch Longhurst from Bottle for Botol which provides local school kids with reusable bottles to replace disposable cups that all too often end up in the ocean.
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Traffic madness in Jakarta

Indonesia's capital Jakarta is a rapidly growing megacity of around 10 million people. Like many major urban centers, it has a major traffic problem. In order to draw attention to the problem, Daniel cycled with two friends - who were on kids' bikes - into some of the "worst traffic" he's ever witnessed.
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Having managed to dodge the trucks speeding threateningly past him on his way to the ferry in Jakarta, he took his bike on board a ship bound for Batam Island. For the next few nights, he - and his bike - took up residence in a massive multi-bunk room before finally docking in Singapore, an entirely "different world" to the one he had left behind. From the sparkling high-rises of the city state, he wound his way to ...
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Bangladesh. It was seventh of the 19 countries on his route, and one that is undeniably feeling the impact of climate change.

Not only is the low-lying state largely located on a river delta, but some 20 million of its growing population live within one vertical meter of the ocean.

If warming continues at its current rate, global sea levels will rise by one meter in the next 80 years, forcing a population equal to that of the US state of Florida to migrate further inland to already overcrowded cities. 

Bangladesh, which produces a minute fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions churned out by western countries, is paying a heavy price for a problem it did not cause.
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Black air rising in China

China presented a whole different set of problems. It is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels and is the largest overall emitter of greenhouse gases.

That reality was brought into sharp relief as Dan and his supporters made their way westwards across the sprawling People's Republic.

They had to wear face masks to be able to breathe properly and by the end of each day, were covered in a thick layer of black soot.

Smog is so dense in certain parts of the country, that the simple act of breathing is akin to smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

Recent studies indicate that coal, which is widely used to generate electricity, industrial energy and heating - is the primary source of the nation's extreme pollution.
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If we are to have even a 50 percent chance of preventing a temperature rise of 2 degrees, 88 percent of coal reserves must stay in the ground. But countries such as China and Australia are still heavily dependent on the polluting industry.

"At the end of the day, we just really have to stop using the stuff. I'm not naive in the business sense, I get that it's a good money maker for a country, but common sense has to prevail at some stage," says Dan.
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Corn for coal

But there is a ray of golden light on China's horizon filled with the black dust of a tired fossil fuel. And it comes in the form of corn. Ear upon ear of which the NGO myclimate is encouraging people to use to fire their stoves. 

So far, the project has installed corn-burning stoves in over 10,000 homes, thereby off-setting more than 800,000 tons of CO2 - which is equivalent to removing 180,000 cars from the roads for a whole year. 
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As Dan ploughed on through China, 200 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle, Erlend was beginning to limber up for his own epic journey. A climate dynamics scientist, with a specialization in Arctic Sea ice, he was planning to run 2,500 kilometers from his native Norway to meet Dan in Paris during the second and final week of the climate conference. He too was planning to give talks along the way.
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As he was unsupported, which meant he had no-one to cart his gear for him, Erlend had to run carrying a 14 kilo pack. And we're not talking short distances here. He ran something close to a marathon - often through mountainous terrain and in freezing temperatures – every day. To minimize the load, his parents sent him climate-neutral packages of food and other supplies, which he picked up along the way.
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Erlend could have chosen to run from a place with flatter terrain, or at least somewhere a bit warmer, but there was a logic to his decision to start in the inhospitable environment of northern Norway. Climate change has seen the polar regions warm twice as fast as anywhere else - and that shift is the harbinger of what is to come in a warming world.
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Retreating glaciers

One change Erlend witnessed was to Okstindbreen, Norway's eighth-largest glacier, which has been steadily melting in the face of warmer temperatures over the past decades. It is not the only Norwegian glacier that is retreating, and their gradual disappearance will contribute to rising sea levels in some cases and cause water scarcity in others.
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A whole culture under threat


The bold, jagged landscapes of northern Norway are home to reindeer herders, known as the Sami. Laila Inga, whose family moved to the region from Northern Sweden 150 years ago, told Erlend they are feeling the affects of global warming.
 
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Some 7,000 kilometers away, Dan was on his way out of China. Joined by supporters he spent eight days pedalling from Beijing to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator.

Covering an incredible 160 kilometers a day, this leg of the odyssey took him through the sprawling Gobi desert known for its temperatures of extremes, and in more recent decades, its rapid growth towards the Chinese capital. 

Desertification, the process which renders fertile land infertile, is also a big problem in Mongolia. Parts of the country that were once lush and easily able to provide for the nomadic people who lived there, are quite literally turning to dust.

Over the past 30 years, climate fluctuations have dried up 850 lakes and 2,000 rivers, forcing nomads, who account for around a quarter of the country's population, off their land and into urban areas where they struggle to compete for work.
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By the time he reached Mongolia, Dan had covered some 8,000 kilometers. It would be an exacting challenge even for a hardened pro, and the strain on his body, and indeed his mind, was immense.

Long stretches alone on the road and other challenges such as the debt he was immersing himself in, and having to take the Trans Siberian railway through Russia because the authorities failed to grant him a tourist visa, made him seriously consider grinding to a permanent stop.

"There were periods in which I wasn't engaging in communities for a long time, I wasn't giving talks or we didn't get much press. The whole point was to communicate our message of the urgent need for action on climate and if we weren't communicating that to people, what was the point? I did find it very difficult at times, wondering why am I out here cycling by myself, so those times were pretty difficult."
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Ultimately, his determination to keep telling people about what he describes as the biggest challenge of our time, prevailed. And although he could not cross Russia on two wheels, he did get to the other side, and in Latvia he was able to continue as planned. 

From there he headed south towards Austria, which by then, was in the thick of a refugee crisis. In the Austrian capital of Vienna, he spoke about one major consequence of climate change - an impending human crisis to which much of the world remains oblivious.
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Though now on the same continent, both men were still a long way from Paris, and Erlend was feeling the pain of weeks on the road. He had bathed in freezing lakes, been forced to cross an ice water river because the bridge marked on the map was no more, and was suffering physical injury. He too, had moments where he thought about giving up.
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One step at a time

So he, like Dan, fought the voices that whispered of giving up, and continued, one step at a time, through Scandinavia, where he said he was often overcome with a sense of great freedom. 
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That sense of personal liberty was compromised each time he was confronted with the world's blindness to the perils of fossil fuels. In Norway, the stunning scenery stood in stark contrast to the blatant reminders of the country's commitment to fossil fuel exploration.

Though it nurtures a green reputation, the government there recently dismissed calls for an end to further offshore oil and gas drilling.

And that, despite research showing that 80 percent of global oil, gas and coal reserves have to stay in the ground if we are to avoid a further temperature rise.

Some places in the Scandinavian country are fighting the decision by taking positive action on a small scale.

The municipality of Overhalla, for example, has adopted a number of green energy schemes, such as building zero emission kindergartens and protecting biodiversity.
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Running in convoy

Erlend was joined along the way by supporters who wanted to see him reach the French capital armed with their messages of hope for a sustainable way forward. Their backing was one of the things that kept him going.
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By the time Erlend reached the city of Bergen, his final running destination in Norway, he'd run 1900 kilometers in 72 days and needed a break.

He sent the flag he'd carried with him from the Arctic Circle to friends in Edinburgh, Scotland - by carbon neutral mail, of course - for a relay to the southern English town of Cambridge.  

From there, he hit the road anew, making his way to London flanked by supporters who ran in solidarity.

Though England is just a proverbial hop, skip and jump from France, if you're running, there's a little more to it. Crossing Belgium for one thing. A team of 22 volunteers had mapped it all out, and it was to be the biggest event of Erlend's run.

But the Belgian police called it off after the tragic terrorist attacks of November 13th in Paris in which 130 people lost their lives.


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"You might say it's better to not take the chance of many people running as a group, but I personally felt it was like giving the terrorists a victory. If you close down the capital of Europe because of fear, the terrorists win. This fear of terrorism changed our final weeks completely, downscaling or cancelling most of our events in Belgium and France." - Erlend Moster Knudsen
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Dan, meanwhile, had left Austria, crossed Switzerland and was on French turf, the Eiffel Tower almost in sight, when his knee gave out. Though that meant he sometimes had to cycle using just one leg, he pounded on, determined to reach the French capital by the early days of December, when the world would be watching the talks he hoped would yield an agreement that would slow and eventually end global warming.

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Around the same time, Erlend too crossed onto French terrain. He was almost there, and if he could bite back the pain, he would be in Paris in a little over a week. Or would he?


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Both suffering physical injury, and against many many odds, Erlend and Dan arrived in Paris in the first week of December. Though much civil society action had been cancelled in the wake of the terrorist attacks, they were in good company.

Their routes had deviated from the original plan, but between them, they had covered 12,500 kilometers, crossed multiple countries, and met thousands of people shouting into the wind for change. 

They had made it, and their elation was as palpable as it was infectious.  

In days that followed, while world leaders were locked in closed door negotiations at the Le Bourget conference center, Dan and Erlend gave talks, rallied crowds, and did whatever they could to share the stories and experiences collected throughout what they both describe as the odyssey of a lifetime.

They agreed they would never put themselves through it again, but was it worth it?







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They left Paris with a strong sense of achievement, and took with them the determination that had been gathering momentum with each meter they covered. With the Paris Agreement now binding, they continue to fight for the people they met along the way, people whose lives are already changing as a result of the climate, people who all too often live too far out on the margins for their voices to be heard.


All footage for this multimedia special is courtesy of the Pole to Paris project.



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