I was so chuffed to see my old buddies Ben and Jerry in the news this week, supporting the equal marriage campaign. They have partnered with Stonewall to rename their Oh My Apple Pie flavour Apple-y Ever After. A Ben and Jerry’s Facebook app invites you to ‘marry’ someone of the same sex, and they’ve got a template letter up online for emailing your MP in support of same sex marriage.
A quick glance at the Ben and Jerry’s Facebook page shows that they’ve gained a lot of supporters and publicity from the campaign, but have lost a lot of fans too.
They are not daft, they knew that would happen, but Ben and Jerry’s have a long history of supporting campaigns and causes. If you read their book ‘The Inside Scoop’ you’ll see that even in their earliest days they were trying to source their ingredients sustainably and treat their employes fairly. Even since they were bought by Unilever a few years ago, they have a brilliant track record on environmental and ethical issues.
I have a very soft spot for Ben and Jerry’s, not just because I love their ice cream and all its chunky sweet deliciousness, but because a few years ago I was one of the first group of students to go through the Climate Change College that they organised in collaboration with WWF. I realised that I’ve never blogged about that before – it was back in 2006, when I had barely mastered email, let alone blogs – so I’m taking this opportunity to share some beautiful photos and memories with you.
I should say now – I’ve not been asked or paid to do this post – I’m bigging up their brand purely because I love them and because I feel like this story is a good fit with the blog. And also, I wanted an excuse to put up some boasty photos 😉
Firstly, Ben and Jerry are real people. I’ve not met Ben, but Jerry is big and cuddly with a beard. And he assures me that Ben is real too. Here’s me and Jerry in the Arctic.
Oh yeah. The Arctic. How did I get there? Well…
In 2005-2006 I took part in a scheme run by Ben and Jerry’s, WWF, and the Dutch polar explorer Marc Cornelissen. The Climate Change College aimed to equip young people with the skills and knowledge to campaign against climate change in their own countries. Six of us – three from the UK and three from the Netherlands – were selected from 1500 applicants. Following that selection we completed a number of online learning modules, and attended a lecture series in London with speakers from the Scott Polar Institute, the Sustainable Development Commission, the Rocky Mountain Institute and numerous other clever bods.
We were also among the first people in the UK to see Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – the man and the powerpoint rather than the film – and we even got to shake hands with him. Here’s another gratuitous pic – it’s me and Al! He’s huge. And a lot more charismatic than you’d think. And watching An Inconvenient Truth made me weep buckets. Our poor wee planet…
The culmination of our training was two weeks spent in Greenland; a week spent observing the effects of climate change first hand and meeting members of the Inuit community to find out how their lifestyle and livelihood has changed as a result of climate change, and a week carrying out scientific work on the Ice Cap itself. We spent some time looking at huskies bottoms too…
Our home for the first week was a small town on the West Coast of Greenland, called Illulisat. On our first night we met up with Aqqaluk Lynge; the chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Aqqaluk talked a lot about how he wants to see his country prosper, but the challenges that he faces are many and varied. He described the conflicts in Inuit culture between the desire to make use of new technology and innovation, but also the desire to preserve the traditional culture. He says that while there have been many benefits of the Inuit realisation that they are part of a global community, the contact has also brought many social problems like alcoholism and drug abuse.
Aqqaluk explained to us some of the destabilising effects that climate change is already beginning to have in Greenland. Slight changes in sea temperature can have major impacts on fish stocks, and given that fishing is one of the area’s primary industries, this has serious implications for employment and the economy. In addition to this, changes to sea ice patterns have opened up debates about possible new shipping routes, and opportunities for drilling oil.
It really brought it home to me that climate change is not just something that affects species and habitat, it is something which is already having, and will continue to have, huge human impacts too. What I do in my everyday life in the UK has a knock-on effect in the Arctic, and then what happens in the Arctic will go on to have an effect back in the UK – maybe not this year or next year, but certainly very soon.
The time in Illulisat also provided us with the opportunity to witness the effects of climate change first hand. We visited the nearby Illulisat ice-fjord, which is the outlet for the Illulisat glacier. The glacier is the second biggest in the world, and accounts for one tenth of all iceberg production from the ice cap. It also falls within a UNESCO world heritage site – the first in Greenland.
Our local Inuit guide explained that the glacier had retreated 12km since 2002 (and this was in 2006, so I imagine there has been a much bigger retreat by now) and the combination of glacial retreat and faster flow had resulted in huge changes in the appearance of the icebergs. They were almost half the size they used to be and appeared much rougher and more creviced because there has been less time for them to be smoothed before reaching open sea.
The rich marine life of the fjord has supported the existence of a succession of cultures for thousands of years – we saw ourselves the archaeological site Sermermiut where the earliest settlement was established nearly 4500 years ago. Obviously any large influx of melt water can lead to changes in salinity, currents and temperatures, and with fishing and hunting being such hugely important activities in the area, such changes could have a real influence on the local people.
One of the other highlights of the week was a boat trip to a tiny Inuit community called Rode Bay. Again the effects of climatic change were before our eyes. Ten years ago, the area we sailed across would have been entirely covered by sea ice; ice that doesn’t form anymore as a result of warmer temperatures. Rising temperatures really are causing drastic changes in the way Greenlanders live their lives.
In Rode Bay – a settlement of 45 people – we visited the local fish factory and school (which doubles up as a church; Greenland has been Lutheran since the 1700s), and sampled some of the local food. Whale meat, whale blubber and dried halibut aren’t the kind of thing I’d like to eat every day, but I’m glad I tried them, and the Inuit don’t have that choice. One of the most striking things about the Rode Bay trip was our visit to the tiny local shop, where there was an entire shelf of energy efficient lightbulbs for sale. If remote Greenlanders can do their part to try and combat the effects of climate change then surely we can too.
After a week of immersing ourselves in Inuit culture, acclimatising to the below zero temperatures, and gaining enough additional kit and food to increase our baggage weight to 700 kilos, it was time to head for the extremes of the ice cap itself. As the helicopter drew closer, the nerves started to kick in. We were heading for one of the most barren places on Earth; camping in temperatures of -25 or -30. A little bit of apprehension was probably a good thing, as it would keep us all aware and alert.
The day-to-day living wasn’t exactly easy. Everything took longer because we were laden down with so many layers of clothes; the food was high in fat content (to help keep us warm) but tasted pretty awful, everything from our deodorant to our camera batteries froze, and our toilet was little more than a pit in the snow. (Less of an igloo and more of an urgh-loo…)
However, we were there working with scientists from Edinburgh and Aberdeen universities to do important groundwork for the European Space Agency’s Cryosat satellite; a project that will provide the most accurate data ever about changes in the ice caps and the effects of climate change in the Polar regions. We were doing work to identify the physical properties of the snow; digging and drilling into the ice cap to take samples for analysis. These results were then used to validate radar measurements and ensure the accuracy of the satellite data when it was launched in 2009.
I can’t believe how lucky I am to have ‘the time I camped on the Arctic Ice Cap’ as a story to tell my grandchildren. It is now almost six years since I was there, but I can still remember so much about how it felt to be there.
How big the ice cap felt, and how small I felt, (even when I stretched my arms out wide).
How beautiful the light was. How we would stand outside our tents, holding plastic beakers of red wine with chunks of ice floating in it, and watch the sun dip below the horizon, only to appear again an hour or two later.
My contribution to the fight against climate change was a tiny one, but it has given me a story to tell – a personal angle that not many people share. Since 2005, the world has started to wake up to what’s happening: Al Gore and the IPCC have won the Nobel Peace Prize; the UK and Scottish Governments have both passed landmark legislation which sets carbon emissions reduction targets in law; the economic case for taking action has been made by Sir Nicholas Stern.
Ben and Jerry’s expanded their Climate Change College scheme in 2007 and 2008 so that students from eight countries became involved, and millions more took part online. I haven’t met any of the students from later years, but I’ve exchanged emails and become Facebook friends with some of them, and they are AMAZING people, doing AMAZING things.
It may have seemed odd in 2005 that an ice cream company would care about the environment, but their slogan for the College – If It’s Melted It’s Ruined – is as true of the Greenland Ice Cap as it is of a tub of Cherry Garcia. And they were ahead of their game.
I hope Ben and Jerry’s keep campaigning on important issues – whether it’s trying to halt climate change or whether it’s equal marriage. I hope they stay strong, even when there are idiots on their Facebook page (or in the Telegraph) threatening a boycott, because they don’t think their food should ‘try to dictate’ what people believe.
I think they will stay strong. I think they will keep campaigning. They are good guys, they really are.