By sailing ship, on skis, in a dog sled or kayak: for forty years Arved Fuchs has been observing how nature has been changing around the globe on his expeditions. A conversation with Germany's most famous polar explorer - about borderline experiences, climate dikes and a new way of thinking.
Mr. Fuchs, what does an adventurer like you do in times of Corona?
Well, there is always the question of how to define "adventurer". A journalist wrote the other day that I was "On a home office expedition". That's pretty good, because there's a lot to plan and work out. In a few days we will start our next expedition. This always involves a lot of desk work and bureaucracy. I also used the time to write a new book on climate change.
You are the first person to reach the North and South Pole on foot within a year, the first person to cross Greenland by dog sled, and the first and so far only person to circumnavigate Cape Horn in winter by kayak - is it records like these that drive you?
As a young man I always had a soft spot for nature sports, even extreme sports - and I was looking for challenges. For me, challenges were always the salt in the soup of life. But you develop further in the course of your life. These records are part of my biography. They have had a decisive influence on me. But when I set off today, I don't do it to set new records. That would also be a little absurd, after all I have grown older. I am interested in what happens behind the scenes. And I also see myself a little bit in the duty of a chronicler. I want to give something back to nature. It has given me so much that today I want to do some lobbying for nature.
I want to give something back to nature. It has given me so much that today I want to do some lobbying for nature.
For more than forty years you have been travelling in the polar regions of this earth and have thus become a contemporary witness to climate change. Can you still remember when you first noticed how nature is changing?
You know, when you go on such expeditions, you have to become an extremely good observer. You have to be able to read nature. You have to be able to see a storm approaching, to judge whether the ice is carrying you or not. These are the parameters that are part of the craft. And environmental issues have always been on my mind. The first signs of global warming I noticed were rather subtle. But the greatest realization really came around the turn of the millennium, when we stood, totally irritated, in front of certain regions where we had been stuck in the ice for years - and suddenly everything was open. So of course you have to ask yourself whether all this is just an irregularity in the natural processes or a tendency? And then I started talking to scientists about it and reading reports about it. I also always had very close contact with the indigenous population, who also made such observations. At some point I realized that it was not my subjective impression, but really a development.
How worried are you?
Well, if I see that the coal phase-out in Germany is to take place by 2038, then I cannot be happy about that. Everyone, including politicians, is aware that something really needs to happen. We have to drastically reduce emissions. And that includes restricting coal-fired power generation - as quickly as possible. We can't put this off for long because nature won't wait. We humans are becoming more and more numerous on this earth and we have an ever smaller habitat at our disposal, which we somehow have to share. If we continue to change nature as we are doing now, we will create incredible potential for conflict. Climate protection, nature conservation, sustainability are not green spinning, but are in the interest of all people.
Climate protection, nature conservation, sustainability are not green spinning, but are in the interest of all people.
With your expeditions you have always had borderline experiences - not only in what you have observed, but also in mental nature. Were there strategies that helped you in almost hopeless situations?
"Never give up" - that is my credo and my internal life insurance. When you are on thin ice somewhere in a small ship or in a dog sled and there is a storm and visibility is poor, then you sit down and say: "Oh, but this is all terribly unfair and why is nature so mean? - that's completely out of place and it doesn't help you a bit. So the motto can only be: "You chose it that way, you wanted it that way - and now get the hell out of here and get yourself and your team out of here safely! Not afraid to crawl away and hope that somebody else will solve the problem. That's the dilemma facing all of humanity, anyway. Everybody thinks that somebody else will solve all the problems. That is not so. We have to solve our problems ourselves, both on a large and small scale.
And if you fail?
I've failed several times. Failure is part of success. Some of the goals I set myself were so ambitious that the probability of failure was very close to success. The art of expedition travel is to set your goals in such a way that you also have a fair chance of achieving them. Or, if the conditions are too bad, that you always have a fair chance to withdraw. Putting yourself in danger and perishing, any fool can do that. You can do anything, but you always have to know where your limits are and always build in a little reserve. Only then is it fun. If I constantly overtax myself and the magazine slips out of my hand, then it's just a game of chance.
Which of your journeys has shaped you the most?
I think it was the ICEWALK North Pole expedition. And that was also because we were a big team, an eight-man international team. There were great cultural differences, language barriers. And a North Pole expedition has to be seen as pretty much the most difficult thing in the polar region. Travelling around a thousand kilometres across a frozen ocean in extreme cold, always in danger. That was an enormous mental and physical challenge. But I don't think I've ever learned so much on an expedition. Especially in dealing with other people.
As an adventurer, aren't you more of a classic lone warrior?
Yes, I have also done solo expeditions. I also have no problem with being alone. But then I often felt like an accountant in the desert (laughs). You see a wonderful polar bear, you are amazed and afterwards you sit in your tent and write in your diary: "Have seen a polar bear today." I'm more the one who bumps into the other one and says: "Gee, look, isn't that a magnificent animal, doesn't that look great?" Everyone multiplies experiences, impressions, sensations. You can exchange experiences. That's why I'm an avowed team player.
Now the next trip with your ship is imminent, on 18 July you will start to the German North Sea coast. What is the destination of the journey?
At first glance it seems as if you don't want to go far away any more. But of course that has a different background. In our project "Ocean Change" we observe how the oceans change. For this we have been to Antarctica, Patagonia, Cape Horn, Greenland and Iceland, and I have always come back home and said: "Man, in Greenland you see climate change in a very special way". At some point I realised that you don't really have to go to Greenland because climate change has long since reached our coasts. They are now building so-called "climate dikes" along the North Sea. Dikes that are wider and higher and which are to withstand rising sea levels at least until the end of the century. What does this mean for people and the economy? What about wind power, fishing and microplastics? On the journey I want to get into conversation with all the players. But not to moralize or to blame. The aim is to take people along, to interest them in the subject and to sensitize them.
Are people also willing to listen?
I think that this varies greatly from region to region. Where people are concerned, there is naturally a heightened sensitivity: if you talk to a Hallig resident who knows that his house has to be rebuilt on a higher wharf - that has an insane impact on his life. After all, there are many different indicators of climate change and the more people are affected by it, the more the trivialisation of the problem diminishes. This trivialization according to the motto: "Then it's just a bit warmer and then palm trees grow here and we don't need to go south any more" - this is clearly decreasing. People are increasingly realising that they themselves are the steering body. I also believe that the Corona crisis has given a crack to our feeling of being supposedly invulnerable. And I think it is quite good that our consciousness has given way to a certain thoughtfulness.
Because you just talked about trivialization: In discussions about the causes of climate change, climate skeptics often speak of natural climate variations - and limited human influence. How do you counter these?
With facts. Of course, climate change has always existed and the natural mechanisms are not out of action. We just have to imagine our climate as a closed system. Like a space in which there is a certain balance. And in this room, where we can breathe easily, someone is now constantly emitting carbon monoxide. ...in small amounts, like 1%. It's a matter of time before people all get drowsy and tired and then die of carbon monoxide poisoning. And it's the same with the climate: we emit more and more CO2 in a closed system. The oceans absorb a great deal of CO2, but at some point they become saturated and change their chemistry. This means that it has many effects and above all: the climate is getting warmer. So it is a question of time. But to say that only one or two percent of CO2 is emitted by humans - that's a calculation that doesn't add up because we are dealing with a permanent discharge of emissions.
Do you believe that we can still succeed in averting the devastating consequences of climate change?
We must. You know, I am a notorious optimist, otherwise I would not be able to do such projects. We have the technologies and I don't want to talk down to you, but I do appreciate everything that has happened in the meantime. In spring, for example, we produced over 50% of the energy in Germany from renewables. In the eighties, no one would have believed that wind energy would one day make a significant contribution to Germany's energy mix as an industrial location. Of course, a great deal of engineering is required. I am aware of that. And if we are talking about automotive engineering, I am also aware that the battery-powered vehicle alone may not be the solution to all problems. It will be like so many things: a mix of different technologies. And that is a challenge, especially for Germany as an industrial location with world-famous engineering, where there is an incredible global market potential.
Which technologies do you expect to be the most promising in terms of decarbonization?
I must tell you that I have great hopes for hydrogen technology. I know that I am also walking on thin ice here, because many people say that hydrogen is very energy-intensive to produce. That's right. When I look out of the window here, here in Northern Germany it is very stormy at the moment, half of the wind turbines are at a standstill, so there is no overloading of the electricity grid. This surplus of electricity could be used in a wonderful way, offshore and onshore, to boost green hydrogen production. I realize that this cannot be one of those 0815 solutions. It certainly requires a lot of engineering and research. But no one said it would be easy or that it would go ahead without any disruption. But in my view we have no other alternative.
In your opinion, what influence do you think the economy has on climate change?
Economy per climate. You can't do without an economy. That's why I've always been against opening up any kind of front. It can only be done in cooperation. The economy is really the instrument we have to produce future-oriented technologies. And technology is the key. Nevertheless, critical discussions must be held here at times. Shareholder's value cannot be the dominant argument.
You can't do without an economy.
Do you believe that the German automotive industry will be able to master the growing challenges?
Only if you recognize the signs of the times. When I looked at what a brand like Tesla, or even some Japanese, generated years ago, people here said: "That's not for us". Here, they have continued to rely on the large, powerful combustion engines, which in my opinion are discontinued models. Sure, they are still popular with many people, but even there, you have to start creating alternatives. Affordable alternatives, so that people can afford them. I believe that this is the only way to ensure that private transport has a long-term future.
Are economic growth and sustainability at all compatible?
I believe that perpetual growth will eventually reach its limits. I also believe that quality of life does not always have to be articulated by the fact that I can now afford the fifth flat-screen TV in a row.
What do you see as the epitome of a good life?
A healthy life - not only physically healthy, but also mentally healthy - that I have a living environment that suits me. This also means that I have an intact nature into which I can go out. For me, nature is also not just the city park or the well-tended garden, but nature is everything. We are also part of nature. If we change nature, we also change the basis of our lives. That is something that has to arrive in people's consciousness. That's why I am very concerned that we preserve a largely intact nature.