Seeing Antarctica for the first time, polar explorer Will Steger was astounded by the massive Larsen ice shelf, which he would spend an entire month traveling across by dogsled during the famous 3,700-mile, 220-day expedition of 1989-90.
Twenty years later, looking back, Steger is astounded -- and worried -- by the loss of the ancient ice shelf, much of which has melted, and discouraged by the lack of public and political attention that Americans pay to the issue of climate change.
Next Friday and Saturday, the Minnesota native, environmentalist and educator will lead events to mark the 20th anniversary of the International Trans-Antarctica Expedition -- events that will be part reunion (all six members of the expedition crew will be there) and part effort to rekindle interest in climate change. (For information, go to www.willstegerfoundation.org.)
Steger's adventures (he also traveled to the North Pole) are remembered for his heroic stoicism and that of his teams, who survived extreme conditions (temperatures were as low as 54 degrees below zero in Antarctica, without factoring in 100-mile-per-hour winds). But their legacy is more important: They produced scientific knowledge, inspired a generation of environmentalists and helped win ratification of an international treaty protecting Antarctica from oil and mineral exploration.
In the United States today, however, it's sometimes as difficult to see what was accomplished as it is to see the Larsen A ice shelf (collapsed in 1995) and the Larsen B shelf, as large as Rhode Island, which disintegrated in 2002. Steger, an advocate of clean energy and environmentally sound job growth, says Americans must disentangle the environment from politics if they want to save the environment.
"The U.S. is denying what's going on," Steger says. "The problem is climate change has gotten into the political arena. The science of climate change is almost as solid as the science of gravity, but denying it is so politicized that it's in the Republican platform. Well, the climate is going to keep changing, whatever we think."
One casualty of the politicization of the problem has been the loss of a unique partnership that Steger had developed with Minnesota's GOP governor, Tim Pawlenty. A few years ago, the two men campaigned together for environmental laws and clean-energy programs that put Minnesota among national leaders. But Pawlenty dropped out as Republicans turned right and as the governor started nursing presidential ambitions. "He was sincere and he saw protecting the environment was the direction to go and he jumped on board," says Steger. "But then he had to backpedal when he got into the presidential arena. I think he put some egg on his face."
But politics have forced Steger to change tactics, too. The environment needs the support of all Americans, he says, but with the issue so divisive and the nation struggling with recession, he tries now to emphasize the economic growth aspects of the environmental equation: Doing the right thing for the planet, he says, can mean doing the right thing for jobs and the economy, pointing out that Minnesota's budget deficit is equivalent to how much we spend each year on fossil fuels. Instead of dividing economic and environmental issues, we ought to join them.
"I never thought I'd be out there talking about jobs," he says. "But we need conservatives to get on board with the effort to get a new economy going, an economy with clean energy and renewable resources. Maybe we should just all agree to put the climate debate on the shelf and talk about the economy first. I'm not giving up on educating people, but the issue is so politically charged that we need to focus on jobs. I would just throw up my hands and quit if I didn't think there was a solution. But building a new, green economy can help save the planet."
Will Steger is still fighting; the passion behind his 1990 expedition will be on display when the Antarctic explorers come together for the first time to discuss what was accomplished and what remains in peril. Among Steger's expedition crew is Chinese scientist Qin Dahe, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change. He will be part of a Friday evening discussion at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, as well as part of Saturday's main reunion event at 3 p.m. at the Anne Simley Theater at Hamline University in St. Paul. (Tickets are available at The North Face stores and are free, although a donation is suggested.)
"We had a great adventure in the Antarctic," Steger says. "I hoped in the 1990s that the world would catch on. But we went the opposite direction, a short-term mentality took over and the environment has been politically sidelined. So I try to tell people it's not just about saving the polar bears. It's about saving our kids.
"That's worth fighting for, whatever it takes."
Nick Coleman is at firstname.lastname@example.org.