Q&A: A Frostbitten Climate Crusading Storyteller

Posted by Ben Jervey

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Despite his claims of being "just a normal guy," Sebastian Copeland regularly endures some the of the harshest conditions on the planet, traveling throughout the polar regions to bring back stories and spread awareness about climate change. Last year, to commemorate the centennial of Admiral Robert Peary's first-ever expedition to the North Pole, he dragged a 200-pound sled over 1,000 miles across the thinning ice to reach the top of the planet.

After returning home and thawing out, Copeland turned the footage he and expedition partner Keith Heger shot along the way into a documentary, Into the Cold: a Journey of the Soul, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. We talked to Copeland about the state of the Arctic; why the heck he put himself through this treacherous journey; and how he hopes others will feel inspired to save the fragile polar environments, and the rest of the planet.

GOOD: Your bio is as long as my arm. What would you say that you do?

SEBASTIAN COPELAND: I can say that just recently I've finally found the real balance of my identity, which is extreme travel and polar exploration and advocating on the protection of these environments and especially on the survival of our species. I'm an artist at heart—a photographer. But my passion has always been extreme travel. And through both of those I've found the way to best speak on behalf of the environment. I'm asked to speak regularly about climate change—I'm on the Board of Directors of Global Green—so I give talks about these journeys and share these stories. I can honestly say that at 46 I'm doing the one thing that I'm really meant to be doing.

G: What course in life brings someone to obsessively travel to the ends of the Earth?

SC: Let me start with my grandfathers, as they were both incredible influences on me. One was a surgeon who lived for a while in India, and then went to Swaziland, Botswana, and Tanzania. He was brilliant at safaris. But midlife he traded his gun for a camera—never shot an animal again. He had a real love of nature, and through his photos and stories, my connection to nature was really brought on by this. My other grandfather delivered "meals on wheels" from the time he was 35 until he was 92. At the end of his life, he was delivering meals to people 30 years his younger. From him I learned philanthropy and the need to give back.

So in my twenties I was supporting some anti-clearcutting campaigns and "save the whales" stuff, but in 1988 I was introduced to the president and CEO of Global Green and he explained climate change and I had an "a-ha" moment, a moment of understanding, and for the past twelve years climate change has been everything.

I changed my entire life on the basis of my understanding of climate change.

G: You've said you were waiting to conquer the North Pole until last year. Why?

SC: Our trip marked the centennial of the first North Pole expedition—Hensen and company reached the pole in 1909. The North Pole is the Grail, really—the toughest expedition on the planet. I've dreamed of reaching it since I was a child, like every child with a streak of adventure. So I saved myself for the centennial. I wanted to put an emphasis on the fact that my childhood dream is one that simply won't be afforded to the children of future generations. Children today have the ability to reach the pole.

G: You say that confidently.

SC: Consider this: our coldest day last year was in the -50s. Our warmest day was -17. The trips this year, happening at the same time of year, the average temperature is -5. There was a 15-degree temperature anomaly this year through the month of March. It was far and away the warmest on record. And then there's the ice itself. Only 3 percent of multiyear ice is left in the Arctic today. Twenty years ago there was 80 percent. This environment is literally melting away. In my opinion, in 10 to 15 years people won't be able to walk to the North Pole like we did. So there won't be a bicentennial walk to the pole. Even 150 years is well out of range.

G: I feel that the polar regions are just a blank space in most people's minds, and telling these stories helps fill in the blank. So we need even more of these stories. What advice would you give others who want to help fill in these blanks and help people understand?

SC: There are a million ways in which to communicate this stuff, so it has to be formulated by someone's individual makeup. I consider myself an artist. Sure, I'm an extreme athlete, but my trade is as an artist. But rather than focus on the commercial photography, now I try to use all the tools I have to fix the problem. I can write, I can shoot, and I can travel. Put those together and what I've come up with is a kitchen sink approach to this type of storytelling.

I'm out there where the impacts of climate change are undeniable, and I have a duty to share that.

Sebastian Copeland is currently making a 45-day, 2,300 kilometer unsupported crossing of the Greenland ice shelf using kites and skis. You can follow that journey—which he's blogging about and filming with a new tiny hi-tech camera that he's awfully excited about—here.

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