Kayaking for Climate Change

Behind the scenes with Steve Posselt on his Kayak4Earth expedition

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Photos by Steve Posselt (Facebook.com/Kayak4Earth)

One year ago, Australian sea kayaker and engineer Steve Posselt, 63, embarked on a long journey to attend the COP21 climate change conference in Paris. Like many other paddlers, Posselt wanted to make a statement. He did it by hopscotching around the globe, connecting epicenters of so-called "climate chaos"—wildfire-ravaged Canberra, Australia, the overflowing Mississippi and storm-washed U.S. east coast, and the flooded and parched waterways of England and France.

Posselt's Kayak4Earth journey wrapped up its Australian leg on January 31, 2015. He then paddled against the Mississippi flow to Memphis in April, and cycled (with kayak in tow) to the east coast, arriving in Virginia Beach in late May. It took Posselt a month to paddle the coastline north to New York City, where he boarded the Queen Mary II and sailed across the pond. In Great Britain, he paddled a handful of waterways, arriving in Paris on October 10.

Ultimately, when the terrorist attacks of November 13 dashed plans for a Paris climate march, Posselt returned to Australia, and blogged the following: "This trip was started with high hopes. Most were dashed, shattered, destroyed. I have been way, way down, but my will to get to Paris never wavered. I got there, and I have made a difference to some so that is all that counts. If we all make a small difference we will win. If we sit back and hope someone else does it we will lose…

"I can paddle, organize logistics, speak and write … Other, better prepared people can deal with Paris. It is true that home is where the heart is. I am going home."

We caught up with Posselt to learn more about his journey.

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CanoeKayak.com: What came first: Your passion for water as an engineer or your passion for water as a paddler?
Steve Posselt: I think that I have always been passionate about water. When I was a child my favorite pastime was playing in the water flowing down the chicken coop that we called the "chook pen." There I would build dams and roads in the mud. It took six years of study at university to understand the complexities of water both at hydraulic and hydrologic levels. My favorite subject was dams and my thesis was a complicated computer program on water profiles in a spillway. After my first major paddle I had to re-evaluate everything when I understood the damage that dams do to the ecosystem. That was quite a shock and set me on a path that is contrary to the water industry. From being one of the Australian water industry movers and shakers I was cast aside as being a bit strange, a bit "green." That was the second shock, not only had I been wrong but the industry was not prepared to accept the science due to their vested interests.

As for paddling, it is just something that I seem to be OK at and it gives me a platform to get peoples' interest and then introduce them to scientific facts. I have not been able to run since knee operations when I was about 50 so that was out. Besides, paddling strengthens my shoulders which helps a major shoulder injury that I sustained when I crashed my motorcycle on sand in the desert in 2006.

What was the impetus for your 2007 Brisbane to Adelaide journey?
I was paddling to work one day and just thought it was a good idea. I had been aware of the seriousness of climate change and thought the trip would be a good way to highlight that seriousness. It wasn't until I was about 10 days into the trip that I started to understand that there was widespread ignorance and downright hostility to the science.

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What inspired you to travel to North America to paddle in areas that have been impacted by climate change?
North America was on the way to Paris and I always wanted to paddle on the Mississippi. There were two really big events—Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy—that I wanted to link with other events like the Canberra bush fires. I have paddled up rivers before and I needed to go that way due to the timing of getting to Paris. Seems like I am the only person to have paddled up the Lower Mississippi during a flood. Americans on the river thought I was crazy but accepted it when I said, ‘Have you ever heard an Australian say he is smart?’

How did Americans respond to your project?
All Americans were interested in the trip. In fact everyone everywhere was interested. Mainstream media was the exception. They were mildly interested in some places and not at all in others. There is a total disconnect between what mainstream media think people are interested in and what they are actually interested in. In Australia significant media lost interest as soon as they found out the trip was about climate change. This says a lot about the state of the world and why I get pessimistic sometimes.

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What is your bigger picture objective?
This was all about doing what I can for my grandchildren and their generation but I fear that the situation is so dire that my children are going to see dreadful things when our unsustainable attack on the Earth comes unstuck somewhere between 2035 and 2050. We are pretty much on the mid-trajectory forecast by The Club of Rome in 1971 and published in The Limits to Growth.

Were you satisfied with the outcome in Paris?
Paris was a start. Let me put it in a geographical context. Let's say you want to drive from Chicago to Washington, D.C. You set out, but find you are heading to Seattle. You keep on going and finally at Montana you start to worry. When you get to Wyoming you turn around and head towards Washington. But you have a long way to go to even get back to where you started. It will be good when the car gets back to Chicago and some progress can be made.

—Watch a short video produced for Steve Posselt's Kayak4Earth expedition.

—Read Lower Mississippi River outfitter John Ruskey's take on the Big Muddy's new reality for paddlers.

Read more from Ken Campbell, CanoeKayak.com's Eco Paddler.