Social Impact Leaders: Robert Swan

Environmentalist and polar explorer Robert Swan was a speaker for NYU Abu Dhabi's Social Impact Leaders series.

Robert Swan is a polar explorer and environmentalist. He was the first man ever to walk unsupported to both the North and South Poles. The coldest day he ever experienced was minus 81 degrees Celsius, where sweat turned into ice inside his clothes. With firsthand experience of the effects of environmental damage on the polar icecaps, Swan has dedicated his life to the preservation of the Antarctic.

Inspired by a film he saw as a child about the Antarctic, Swan started raising funds for an expedition in his early 20s. Young and without credentials, he faced countless rejections. Finally after seven years, Swan successfully raised enough money for a trip to the Antarctic the help of well-known conservationist Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau had only one request in return — to leave behind only footprints at the end of the expedition.

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.

Robert Swan

Known as the last true great wilderness, the Antarctic's pristine terrain is maintained in part because of the Antarctic Treaty, which allows scientists to freely conduct research and share their findings. With the world's growing demands for energy, however, countries are starting to eye the potential rich natural resources trapped underneath the layers of ice.

Swan leads annual expeditions to the Antarctic region. This photo was captured by participant and NYU Abu Dhabi's Fisher Wu, Class of 2017.

This threat propelled Swan to spend his time educating and inspiring the next generation of leaders about policy development and sustainability issues. Instead of harping on the damages caused by climate change, Swan works to inform, engage, and inspire, through positive outlook. In a world constantly filled with negative news, Swan believes it's important to be positive and share stories of how our efforts are making an impact.

It Takes a Village

Thanks to massive campaigning in the 1980s to eliminate chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) products from big culprits such as aerosol spray cans, refrigerators, and air conditioners, scientists have discovered that the hole in the ozone layer had been self-repairing and shrinking over the years. And instead of exploiting the Antarctic at a costly investment, Swan is a firm believer in using more renewable energy and advancing technology to harness more biofuels.

"If we do a good job on that, it won't make financial sense to go to Antarctica," he argues.

A whale breaches in Antarctic waters. Captured by NYUAD student Fisher Wu.

Swan is rallying more people to join him in his campaign to protect the Antarctic through Project 2041, which is also the year before a moratorium ends on mining in the Antarctica. Besides being the herald of positive actions and news on the environment, Swan organizes yearly expeditions to take groups of international men and women to see firsthand the last great wilderness on Earth. Climate change has no border and we all need to do our part, because "the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it."

Robert Swan spoke at NYU Abu Dhabi as part of the Social Impact Leaders seminar series organized by the Office of Community Outreach.