Seeing the effects of climate change up close: MIT Sloan Lecturer and Sustainability Expert, Darcy Winslow, mobilizes young leaders on annual trips to Antarctica

“There is a light bulb that goes off for these young leaders. They suddenly understand what we have to lose if we don’t act now”

Darcy WinslowDarcy Winslow, Senior Lecturer, MIT Leadership Center

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 22, 2010 — Antarctica is one of the most remote, harshest environments on earth. Covered by over 5 million square miles of solid ice, it is the world’s highest, driest, and coldest continent. It is also the place where the effects of climate change are most evident: according to gravity data from NASA, Antarctica has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers—24 cubic miles—of ice each year since 2002.

Darcy Winslow, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, has witnessed the rapidly changing landscape. For the past two years Winslow has been a resident sustainability expert on expeditions to Antarctica organized by the group 2041, founded and run by Robert Swan, OBE and named after the year that the moratorium on drilling and mining on the continent expires. The two-week expeditions, attended by students and corporate leaders from all over the world, aim to provide participants firsthand experience of the continent’s fragile ecosystem, and teach and inspire them to do what they can to halt the pace of climate change.

“When we land on the continent and witness signs of climate change up close, there is a light bulb that goes off for these young leaders,” says Winslow, who spent 20 years in senior management at Nike and is today an Executive-in-Residence at the MIT Leadership Center. “They suddenly understand what we have to lose if we don’t act now.”

Last year’s trip, which was co-sponsored by BP, involved a rigorous application process for students. Prospective attendees submitted three essays as well as an original video presentation. More than 2,000 students applied for the 50 slots. “It is an honor to be chosen that comes with an expectation,” says Winslow, noting that more people travel through London Heathrow Airport in one hour than have ever set foot on Antarctica. “When you return home, you have a responsibility to inspire and mobilize people around this issue.”

Participants fly to Ushuaia, Argentina, and from there depart on an 117 meter Russian research vessel down the Beagle Channel and across the Drake Passage, widely known as some of the worst seas in the world. During the two-and-a-half-day journey to Antarctica, participants take part in lectures and discussions by climate scientists, biologists, and environmental experts about climate change, and dissect case studies about how businesses cope with governance and sustainability issues.

Winslow says she was deeply affected by seeing tabular icebergs from the Larsen Ice Shelf adrift in the sea. Some segments have already disappeared: the Larsen A ice shelf collapsed in 1995; and the Larsen B ice shelf, once the size of Rhode Island, disintegrated in 2002. The Larsen C ice shelf appears stable, but scientists caution that if warming continues at its current rate, that shelf could also break up, which would have a dramatic impact on sea levels.

“When you see these huge icebergs—miles long, and stories high—that were once part of the land, and you realize that it’s because of climate change, you can’t dismiss it,” says Winslow. “It’s an experience that transforms how you conduct your life and the way you do business.”

The overarching goal of the expeditions is to encourage students and business leaders to adjust their personal and professional behaviors. “Before you can have an impact on others, you have to make changes yourself. You can lead through influence,” she says. “Look at your transportation. If you need a car to get to and from school or work, are you driving the most fuel-efficient vehicle? If you own a home: where do you get your power? Are there green alternatives? Do you recycle? What is your water usage? Climate scientists have found that these seemingly insignificant shifts in habit can have a huge impact.”

The same is true for how businesses operate, she says. “Business as usual is game over,” she says. “There’s been a sea change and companies increasingly understand that they can’t operate the same way they did 50 years ago. As Robert Swan says, ‘The greatest threat to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’ That someone else is us.”

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