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Middlebury sophomore Ben Wessel aboard the Aleksey Maryshev in Svalbard, Norway.

Middlebury sophomore's climate action lands him in cold water [video]

October 12, 2008

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - For climate change activists, the Arctic holds special meaning and special urgency -- perhaps the clearest illustration of what is at stake in the fight against global warming.

Middlebury College sophomore Ben Wessel, an environmental studies major from Washington, D.C., who has been highly active in the youth climate movement, experienced the wonders of the Arctic this summer as a participant in the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) inaugural "Voyage for the Future," a two-week expedition to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, 400 miles north of the mainland and home to the world's northernmost settlements.

Wessel earned a highly competitive slot as one of 18 young adults - representing nine countries - selected by WWF for their interest and accomplishments in climate change activism. The group sailed aboard a former Russian research vessel along the entire west coast of Svalbard. They were accompanied by a group of climate science experts, who provided daily seminars. The goal, according to WWF, was to develop a group of young ambassadors who could share their knowledge to help generate broad support for radical reductions in greenhouse emissions. Wessel says he realized he was in a radically different place when the group flew from Oslo to Longyearbyen, the islands' largest settlement with a year-round population of about 2,000 residents. "The sun never set," said Wessel. "It was like noon all day and 35 degrees - definitely different from June in D.C."

In Longyearbyen they boarded the Aleksey Maryshev, a one-time research boat, now ice-strengthened and converted for use by travelers to the Arctic and Antarctic. Wessel had a Russian roommate and says the boat was quite comfortable. The intensive daily schedule aboard the ship included morning lectures by renowned climate change experts in fields ranging from paleoclimatology and marine biology to communications and political activism. Students studied where glaciers had been and where they had receded and looked at the state of the ice pack and ice flow. They made stops at some of the many research stations sprinkled throughout the islands.

In the afternoons, the group explored on land or ice the wilderness areas to see some of the effects they had been discussing in the morning. Once a fellow passenger pointed out a tiny white spec on an iceberg. As the ship drew closer, it became clear that it was a polar bear. Wessel says at first the bear stared down the boat, but then relaxed and began to roll on the ice. They also sighted walrus, humpback whales, minky whales, puffins, Arctic foxes and "all sorts of rare birds that I'd never heard of."

Wessel says one of his big challenges in discussing global climate change is how to convince people that it is crucial to pay attention to the Arctic. "The Arctic is the site of numerous tipping points that will spell disaster for the rest of the planet if we don't address them," Wessel says. Loss of sea ice and polar warming, for example, directly impact the climate of the rest of the planet. "A lot of the keys, solutions and potential problems to this huge global crisis are held in this one place - the Arctic," he says.

In a sense, the voyage was an emotional balancing act. On the one hand, the passengers found love at first sight with the breathtakingly beautiful wilderness surrounding them. On the other, WWF did not invite them along just to fall in love, but to absorb a deeply sobering message about the challenges facing the Arctic and the rest of the planet. If the balance was right, these youth leaders will bring new, informed and passionate voices to the international campaign to reduce greenhouse gases.

The end of the trip signaled the beginning of a new phase in Wessel's climate activism. Along with the other newly anointed ambassadors, WWF has charged him with a mission to inform government and business leaders, the media and general public that the Arctic "is the place where present and future climate impacts are of urgent global relevance."

"They tagged us as 'ambassadors for change' and I'm trying to take that title very literally and go out and make a difference in the political, social and business discussion in terms of what needs to happen to secure a safe future for our climate and our world," Wessel says.

Among their initiatives, Wessel and his shipmates have taken on the "Green Finger" video project, which began at Middlebury a few years ago and which Wessel describes as a video action project designed to raise awareness about climate change. The distinctive looking Green Finger videos feature people holding up a single green-painted finger, then opening their hands to show a written message on their palm naming something they want to protect from climate change.

"It's turned into a very moving and powerful way to communicate to many people on different levels," says Wessel, noting that while they were in Norway they filmed the Norwegian crown prince and princess for Green Finger videos.

With the elections approaching, Wessel is now focusing his attention on a campaign called Power Vote, sponsored by the Energy Action Coalition, a national youth movement involved in energy issues. Then in early December, he will travel to Poland for the United Nations Climate Change Conference as part of a delegation of 23 American students from an organization called SustainUS. They plan to write policy position papers and apply pressure to the United States delegation to follow up on promises for action on climate change.

Wessel attributes much of his ambition and understanding of climate change to his Middlebury experience. "The Sunday Night Group and many professors, particularly in the Environmental Studies department, stress the fact that the youth have the power to change the discussion on climate, and that dedication and belief in the power of change are tools we can wield to help solve this crisis."

"I've been asked a lot, 'Was it really necessary to go to the Arctic to get your message out - couldn't you have just met in New York to talk about it?'" says Wessel. "I really had to think about that for a while, and I feel like the experience of being in the Arctic where all this change is taking place was so crucial to the urgency of the message, that now I have this connection to a place that before was just a picture or a spot on a map. Now it feels like something I want to save personally."