A ‘Pole to Paris’ in Durham and the Challenge of Climate Activism

By Mika Laiho

The first time I heard about the Pole to Paris non-government organisation (NGO) was while I was working as a volunteer on the council of another NGO, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS). Internal e-mails between members of the executive committee of APECS suggested that Pole to Paris had compromised its integrity as a non-political organisation because the latter set out to raise awareness of climate change among global citizens, and to lobby governments in countries all over the world, in the lead-up to the Paris climate talks (known as the COP21 negotiations) this December.

P2P_PosterDespite sympathising with the informal APECS stance, I felt compelled to take part in the Pole to Paris movement because it seemed so fantastic. Climate change awareness is important, especially in countries with poorer regions with low levels of education and little support for structural aid or localised climate-change adaptation practices. So two postdoc scientists, one a London-born glaciologist based in New Zealand and the other a Norwegian climatologist, had decided to cycle 12,000 kilometres from the South Pole to Paris, and run 3,000 kilometres from the North Pole to Paris.

The idea of combining carbon neutral means of transportations and communication with a clear political message in the lead-up to the biggest climate change negotiation of my time seemed like genius!

I got in touch with one of the organisers from Pole to Paris and agreed to help organise some of the local runs that would take place in Durham. Combining my role as a Café Politique team leader with being an event organiser for Pole to Paris was a winning combination for me because I managed to use my influence as an Durham academic and Ustinov scholar to support my role of climate change activist. My aim was to fit a number of complementary events back-to-back to give as much exposure to Pole to Paris and climate change awareness in general.

Ustinov College's Café Politique on ‘Climate Change: Science, Policy, Activism’ (Photo: Ustinov GCP)
Ustinov College’s Café Politique on ‘Climate Change: Science, Policy, Activism’ (Photo: Ustinov GCP)

Excited, I threw my green gauntlet down in Durham town! Firstly, on 22 October, Ustinov College organised a Café Pol on climate change with the participation of Professor Glenn McGregor and Dr Andrew Baldwin, which gave an audience of more than 80 people the opportunity to explore the ‘myths’ of climate science, policy, and activism from both physical and human geography perspectives; secondly, on 23 October, fellow Pole-to-Paris runner and co-founder of the Oxford Climate Society, Mostyn Brown, spoke to doctoral students from the Durham Energy Institute; finally, two runs took place between Newcastle-Durham (24 October) and Durham-Darlington (25 October), with my own leg of the relay being roughly 36km.

These events that came to shape the lives of local students, academics, activists, and spectators in Durham last month were also character-building for me — as a runner it was great to see how sports like running can impact people’s lives and contribute towards a political cause, and as a side benefit I reached a point in my physical fitness that I have not felt for a very long while.

I owe thanks to everyone involved — the Global Citizenship Programme, for a start, were more than cooperative, especially members of my Café Politique team; as were senior members of the Durham Energy Institute and the Pole to Paris organisers, which included our local hero Kathryn Sygrove (who rallied a lot of support within Durham’s running community) and Beth Ward (who is the brawn behind the Pole-to-Paris vision in terms of putting together all UK-based running events).

Baby activist (Photo courtesy author)
Baby activist (Photo courtesy author)

I recommend that others jump at the opportunity to get involved in other important local grass-roots organisations, whether they be in Durham or elsewhere (back home, e.g., China, India, or the United States of America). Be it a sociopolitical cause you feel passionate about like Movember (my current passion) or an organised event that brings members of your local community together, I promise that you will not regret it! I got to experience real energy and commitment in making Pole to Paris a success in the North East, which brought a group of very different people together for a truly historical moment.



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