One cool dude: How Parker Liautaud aims to save the world, one polar expedition at a time

It’s sunny California, but 17-year-old Parker Liautaud is in furs, preparing to make his fourth polar expedition. As Guy Adams discovers, he’s driven both by concern for our planet and the hubris of youth.

Guy Adams
Friday 10 August 2012 23:19

There are things that you expect to see etched into the face of every polar explorer: grizzle; broken veins; the indelible scars of a few nasty battles with frostbite. Parker Liautaud has yet to accrue a single one of these. The most exotic adornment to his adolescent chin is a faint covering of bum fluff.

Appearances can be deceptive, though. At 17, Parker is already a veteran of three serious polar expeditions. In 2009, aged 14, he visited Antarctica with the explorer Robert Swan. In 2010, just before his GCSEs, he narrowly failed to become the youngest-ever person to reach the North Pole. And in 2011, he went back for a second shot – arriving at the end of the Earth to the cheers of a helicopter-full of champagne-glugging day-trippers.

We meet amid the hustle, bustle and medical-marijuana stores of Venice Beach. Parker, who recently completed his A-levels, is in California preparing for his fourth and most ambitious journey yet. In December, he's due to begin an epic attempt to become the youngest person to trek to the South Pole, hauling a 250-pound sled across 550 miles of ice sheet. If successful, the trip will cement his status as the most precocious teenage adventurer since the invention of thermal long johns.

After that, while most of his buddies are embarking on gap years, this still-gangly teenager will pursue what amounts to his other great mission in life: saving the planet. Liautaud doesn't just explore frozen wastelands for the sake of it. Instead, as a first-hand witness to the ongoing melting of the world's ice-caps, he designs his adventures to serve a purpose: raising awareness of climate change among his young peers.

To that end, official PR bumpf dubs him: ;campaigner, global policy leader, public speaker, environmental journalist, [and] polar explorer'. Parker describes his priorities in life by saying: "I want to help people understand that we don't have any time left. That we are in a critical few years, with climate change, where the world needs to get past political obstacles, and start to do something substantial to change the course that we're on."

Liautaud is already spreading that word. In the past two years, he has been profiled by Vanity Fair and the New York Times. He's sat on panels with Bob Geldof and Kofi Annan at conferences of One Young World, a sort of Davos summit for the under-25s. He's delivered a million-strong petition to David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, and acquired almost 30,000 Twitter followers. Later this month, he will deliver a speech to pointy-headed fans of the über-prestigious, idea-spreading body, TED.

Are you keeping up? Good. It's also worth mentioning that Parker Liautaud happens to be a very nice young man, with impeccable manners and that quiet sense of self-confidence which is common among the products of blue-chip boarding schools (he spent the past five years at Eton). Born in California, to American and French parents, he and his four siblings spent their formative years in the UK, after their father, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist called Bernard, decided that the family might benefit from a stint in London.

Until 13, Parker was an ordinary kid. That changed after he met Robert Swan, through a mutual friend. They began an e-mail correspondence which escalated into a friendship that eventually saw the then 14-year-old invited to join a trip to the Antarctic. He said yes almost instantly. Friends and family, to whom he'd thus far shown he had no particular interest in outdoor pursuits, particularly polar ones, were perplexed – to say the least.

"I was the second-choice goalkeeper for the third-lowest football team in school. So the prospect of me hauling a sled across miles of snow was kind of a farce, and I was really not taken seriously," he recalls.f "The attitude from people at school was 'You're not going to raise the money and you're not going to get physically fit enough to do it'." He ate lots of chicken, spent a long time in the gym, and proved them wrong.

The following year, Liautaud cooked up a more ambitious plan: to become the youngest-ever person to trek to the North Pole. He found a new accomplice, the veteran explorer Doug Stoup, and through a mixture of charm and luck persuaded General Electric to underwrite the roughly $150,000 (£96,600) cost of the record attempt. Dame Vivienne Westwood designed the Union Jack that he was to raise at his destination, and a small army of news reporters interviewed him in the run-up to the trip.

Then disaster struck. The early months of 2010, when the duo set out, were among the warmest on record, hitting two degrees celcius (the average for that time of year is around -25C). The Pole, which is essentially a GPS location on a constantly-moving collection of ice sheets, became virtually inaccessible, surrounded by patches of uncovered ocean. A trip which had intended to raise awareness of melting ice caps had been thwarted. By melting ice caps.

"The way the ice drifted was devastating," he says of the doomed, 70-mile trek. "We would get up, battle through these difficult conditions for 15 hours, then wake up the next morning and find that we were further away from the Pole than we'd started the previous morning. It was a slap in the face." After 14 days trying, and with rations running low, they abandoned ship.

Liautaud came home, sat his GCSEs, notching-up 11 A* grades, and decided to try again. He raised another six-figure sum, badgering charitable foundations and corporate sponsors into underwriting a new expedition, and set off in spring 2011. Conditions were cold but perfect, and he and Stoup reached the Pole in a jiffy.

"By complete coincidence, we arrived at the moment when a helicopter landed to drop off a group of tourists who'd paid to spend 10 minutes there," he recalls. "Explorers call them 'champagners'. Anyway, it was all a little weird, because 30 people were standing there. It felt like I had just finished a cross-country ski race, or something." He promptly 'checked in' to the North Pole on the social media site, Foursquare. At the time, that was also a first.

While it didn't make him the youngest North-Poler, the success gave Liautaud a platform to continue advocacy against climate change, through both his campaigning website, The Last Degree, and work with pressure groups such as His pitch is that it's his generation, rather than the one that today's world leaders belong to, that must push hardest for cuts in carbon emissions. They are the ones with the most at stake.

"I'm nearly 18 years old," he says. "The changes scientists were predicting when I was a child are already happening today. And in my adult lifetime, it's going to get worse." Scientific opinion regarding the existence and scale of the problem is pretty much settled, he argues, adding that the portion of the public which still doubts the reality of man-made climate change – and remains hostile to legislation that might solve it – is largely ill-informed, although "that isn't necessarily their fault".

Liautaud's advocacy work has duly made him enemies. When Anthony Watts, a prominent climate change sceptic, wrote a scathing blog entry criticising one of his polar expeditions, Liautaud was dubbed a "joke", a "twerp" and a "silly little clown" by commenters. One reader described his expedition a "stunt" and said that sending him on it was "the environmentalist version of making your kid a suicide bomber".

In 2010, The Daily Beast, Newsweek's sister internet site, ran an article critical of Parker's parents for letting him explore the Arctic. "It basically said they should be shot for letting me go on the expedition," he says. "Mum and Dad told me they thought it was funny. But I know they felt differently. And I was very upset about that."

Critics have also knocked his Etonian background, and characterised him as a spoilt rich boy, going to the poles "on Daddy's dime". He vigorously disputes that. "I live very comfortably, and I've been very lucky, but it's simply not true," he counters. "From the start, my parents have never paid for any of my trips. I decided from the start that I wanted to raise all the money for every expedition I went on, on my own."

Still more have remarked that, given his globe-trotting lifestyle, Parker should practise a little more of what he preaches. After all, a polar expedition produces plenty of carbon emissions. In response, Parker declares that all his emissions are "triple offset". And he denies any hypocrisy: "I don't actually want people to live with less or travel less or turn off their lights. Because the truth is that the world has never stood for a decrease in development. We've never gone backwards and we are not going to."

Instead, he argues: "The way to do something about climate change is to actually look at the fundamental source of the energy we're using and change that. The only reason fossil fuels are now cheaper than renewables is the amount of investment that goes into making prices lower."

Liautaud's high-profile polar trips are shaping this debate in other ways. As a future scientist (he's off to Yale in September), Parker has contributed to research projects carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the University of Alberta. During his coming South Pole trip, he'll set up two stations to record weather data in the Antarctic.

It sounds like an an exhausting life, fraught with hostility. But Liautaud seems to relish the fight. When you've hauled a sled across hundreds of miles of frozen tundra, lived off freeze-dried food for weeks, and learnt how to ward off a hostile polar bear, attempting to save Planet Earth is all in a day's work.

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