The Antarctica Challenge

The Antarctica Challenge

The temperature is south of zero, so cold that ice forms a carpet on the ocean’s surface. Antarctica is a place that is as dangerous and unforgiving as it is breathtakingly beautiful.

A discussion is heating up onboard the Sea Spirit about appropriate carbon emission targets for the world, and the group is debating the merits of being ambitious versus realistic. The international contingent is a combination of young people, ‘future leaders’ passionate about environmental issues, and corporate executives – half from ‘green’ companies and the other half representing some of the most polluting businesses in the world. Recent graduate Gemma Borgo-Caratti (BA Communications, 2010) is one of the young environmental campaigners and the only Australian in the group.

Borgo-Caratti gets off her chair to rise above the banter. She points out that whatever the target is, it will undoubtedly end up being negotiated down, making an ambitious estimate essential if any real difference is to be made. She wins the crowd over.

This voyage is part of the Inspire Antarctica Expedition (IAE), a leadership program that aims to create ambassadors for sustainability and the environment. The program educates and inspires leaders from around the world, who then return home and instigate change through their own personal networks. As well as seeing the effects of climate change first-hand, Borgo-Caratti says the group discussions presented life-changing lessons for everyone.

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“It was all about young people understanding where big business and corporate companies are coming from, as well as them understanding that it is our future that they’re risking and it’s not fair for them to leave behind a totally destroyed environment that our generation will have to deal with. I saw some people who had been stuck in their corporate lives, had been stuck working in coal or oil or gas, realise there are other people that this is affecting and it’s not just about how much money the company makes .”

Only twelve months before this incredible journey, Borgo-Caratti was lost. She was coming to the end of her studies and had no idea what was next. After doing at internship at the Centre for Policy Development where she worked on the Green Economy Toolkit (an online collaborative research project that is aimed at showcasing ‘green’ policy ideas), Borgo-Caratti chose Climate Change Politics and Ecology as her final subject.

It’s here that Borgo-Caratti had her ‘environmental awakening’. Learning about the effects of climate change on global weather patterns and how this was impacting the poorest people in the world, Borgo-Caratti knew she had to do something.

“I felt a huge amount of responsibility. I thought: I am a young person in the 21st century. I can stand up for other young people around the world whose voices can’t be heard.”

Following this, Borgo-Caratti decided to join the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and ended up in another unusual situation. It was directly before Australia’s 2010 Federal Election and the AYCC had conjured up a way to get the attention of candidates. For two weeks prior to voting, Borgo-Caratti and a herd of other AYCC representatives dressed in elephant costumes and followed Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard wherever they went.

“It was based on the idea that climate change is the elephant in the room. We wanted to make sure they knew that young voters cared about climate change.”

The stunt was a great success. It was included in The Sydney Morning Herald’s top ten political moments of 2010 and Prime Minister Julia Gillard invited the leaders of AYCC for a personal meeting with her after the election.

While fancy dress wasn’t a part of the expedition to Antarctica, the trip was just as memorable. Along with lectures and debates, the two-week journey included plenty of leadership-building activities where group members were challenged to push their boundaries to the ultimate limit.

“We got to really explore the continent; we did big hikes on glaciers, saw penguin colonies and ice-camped. We also did a polar plunge.”

Borgo-Caratti explains that a polar plunge in Antarctica involves driving the boat around in circles to mash up the ice. Then, in nothing more than your everyday swimsuit, each person takes a turn to jump into the ocean. Contrary to expectation, this is apparently not dangerous and does not result in freezing to death.

“It’s about mentally preparing yourself for a challenge. You have to push yourself as far as you can go. You’re only in there for a few seconds and then you get dry. It’s an incredible rush.”

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Borgo-Caratti says the group saw a lot of things that were confronting, but that everyone left with a pledge to make a difference at home. Currently studying a Master of Environmental Management, Borgo-Caratti is now the NSW Coordinator of AYCC and is working hard to help educate and empower other young people to be more aware of their impact on the world.

“If we’re going to change behaviour we need to educate people, so it’s my professional pledge to do this by teaching others about how they can make changes to reduce their impact on the environment.”

Borgo-Caretti is educating others through the Switched-on Schools program – organising AYCC volunteers to visit schools and run workshops that educate and empower students to start their own sustainability projects. She is also helping run a campaign called Meet Your Member, which gives young people the chance to discuss climate change with their local and state politicians. Borgo-Caratti says that everyone can make a difference by doing one thing. “Just question: why are we doing this, what impact is this having and how can I change it?”

 Words: Vanessa Marks
Images: Anna Zhu Photography and Gemma Borgo-Caratti