30th June 2021

Climate Surfers

Sam Bleakley

One of the biggest ways to tackle the climate crisis can come from cutting our own carbon emissions: flying less and driving less, eating less meat and wasting less food, switching to renewable energy and insulating our homes and buildings. But what are the links between surfing and the climate crisis? To find out more we caught up with Belinda Baggs in Australia and Dan Crockett in Cornwall. Belinda is a lifelong waterwoman, a mother and longboarding trailblazer, her noseriding grace inspiring surfers around the planet. She is a long-time ambassador for Patagonia and has recently launched the action group Surfers For Climate www.surfersforclimate.org.au. Dan Crockett is a writer, super stylish freesurfer and development director at the Blue Marine Foundation www.bluemarinefoundation.com currently leading the campaign to create national marine parks around the British seas, and focusing on the field of blue carbon that highlights the intrinsic relationship between the oceans and the climate.

We’d love to hear about your working and surfing routine at the moment?

Belinda Baggs:

I’m living on Victoria’s Surf Coast close to Bells Beach. It’s a beautiful part of the world with a very diverse landscape that can be welcoming and playful in one bay and wild and extreme just around the corner. So it’s perfect for someone who can never decide if they want to shortboard, longboard or bodysurf! I work for Patagonia as a 'Global Surf Activist’. I was constantly seeing a gap where the climate conversation wasn’t attracting surfers. So we launched a non-profit called Surfers For Climate - a sea roots movement dedicated to positive climate action. As surfers we are already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate along the shores and below our surfboards. We want to break down the science, connect communities, and provide tangible solutions we can all take forward to ensure that we can continue riding waves in thriving oceans into the future.

Dan Crockett:

I work from an acre of woodland outside St Agnes, where I have a cabin to work off-grid. We’ve been regenerating the biodiversity of the area, so it’s a fantastic place to be based, although the bird song can be intense at times! I have a young family and tend to surf in the mornings or evenings around work, unless it’s exceptionally good. I surf to learn from and connect with things that aren’t human, so mostly surf alone, and find myself bodysurfing and freediving more. I like the simplicity of those activities and the lack of expectation regarding the conditions. It's really neat to work in marine conservation and spend so much time in and around the sea, because it all feeds into what I'm doing, like seeing first-hand the health (or lack of it) of our kelp forests, seagrass beds and marine habitats, and taking action to regenerate these environments.

How would describe the role the climate plays in our lives?

Belinda Baggs:

Climate is the long-term pattern of weather in a place over many years, which could explain why the odds of scoring the fabled Australian points are best between February and May. Whilst weather can significantly change in a few hours and across seasons, climate is the tracked observation over decades. Global climate systems are highly complex, consisting of the atmosphere, oceans, snow and ice, land and the biosphere. The delicate interactions between these distributing heat across the planet determines weather systems that bring us winds, swell, rainfall and extreme weather. Even the slightest rise in temperatures can throw our global climate system out of balance and have a catastrophic impact on our lives.

Dan Crockett:

The climate includes all of the natural things and process that are both seen and unseen that support our planet. Because a lot of this is invisible it’s a hard concept to grasp, and it’s very easy to live in a way that is quite disconnected from the needs of the climate. Also, it's so big in scale that it's easy to disengage with things like the vast expanse of the ocean and the crucial role it plays. A big part of my work is joining up the roles of the ocean and the climate in people’s minds, because stopping the loss of biodiversity is so connected to this.

How would you describe the climate crisis?

Belinda Baggs:

Global warming is the long-term heating of the earth’s climate system. Whilst it’s true the climate has always been changing, since the start of the industrial period the temperatures have been rising at a more rapid rate than ever before due to greenhouse gases being trapped in the earth’s atmosphere. This has been caused by humans burning fossil fuels and by destroying our wild landscapes that help trap and regulate those same gasses. Whilst all this science can start to sound boring, we need to remember this is the very reason we have waves to ride, oceans to swim in, water to drink and air to breath.

Dan Crockett:

The amount of carbon we emit in our daily lives through things like travel, energy, food and industry heavily impacts on these systems and processes. The big tragedy is so much of this is caused by the industrialised West and felt more intensely elsewhere in the world. If you really get into the data the indicators are so concerning. Basically all the habitats that store carbon - such as mangroves, saltmarshes, seagrasses, kelp and forests - are in serious decline as they have been reduced rapidly by things like over development and over-fishing. And the ocean is the biggest carbon sink on the planet. It has a critical role in heat exchange keeping the earth cooler. A more unhealthy ocean makes a more unhealthy planet.

As a surfer, when did you first become acutely aware of the climate crisis?

Belinda Baggs:

When my son was a baby between 2011 and 2015 I was doing a lot of extra reading. The climate change predictions were clearly terrifying, yet no one was really making the changes required. I see my most important role as a parent to ensure that my son has a safe and flourishing future. Climate change threatens that. The actions we are taking on a global level simply aren’t good enough. Sadly, this is impacting cultures that have contributed least to the problem. A few years ago I visited the Solomon Islands, where due to sea-level rise, ghost trees are the only remains of large areas that used to be land. And here in Australia we are seeing more erosion than ever before. If we look beyond the beach and at the science, the list of scary scenarios continue to unfold, including bush fires, extreme weather events like cyclones, typhoons, and even cold polar plunges. Lessening rainfall and more intense heatwaves also put our food sources at risk.

Dan Crockett:

Ten years ago I was living and working in London and escaping the city on solo trips to the remote edge of Britain and Ireland. On a trip to the outer Orkney Islands surfing and diving I was bowled over by the extraordinary marine biodiversity. It really made me aware of the lack of abundance in marine diversity in Cornwall. In contrast the outer Orkney Islands felt like a much healthier ocean ecosystem. This triggered my interest in marine conservation and the role that marine habitats have in climate change. Over time I realised how tricky the issue was, due to the way we tend to silo all of these different topics that are actually all interconnected. I also quickly became aware of the role the ocean could play as a solution to the climate crisis.

What have you been inspired to do as a surfer to campaign for raising awareness about the climate crisis?

Belinda Baggs:

The solution is so simple: stop burning fossil fuels and re-wild the planet. The technology to do this already exists. The economics are now leaning towards a renewable future and the only blockers left are stubborn old politics and refusal by big businesses to change. With a few mates (including Johnny Abegg) we started Surfers For Climate to welcome people of all abilities, and from different backgrounds and identities, to take action. We believe if you ride a board, you are a surfer. Once you catch that first green wave, or spend a magical moment in the sea, that connection and appreciation lasts forever. We care and we can be the change. Collectively there are millions of us waveriders across the globe. United our actions and voices are strong.

Dan Crockett:

A lot of my work is focused on targeted interventions to try and improve ocean health, which can be severely impacted by overfishing and potentially things like deep sea mining. I campaign to get governments to be responsible using a blend of investigatory, legal and media approaches. It's an all-consuming passion working across dozens of different fields, finding solutions to challenges faced by the ocean and finding the funding to make these campaigns happen. Recently we have established a vision for developing National Marine Parks in the seas around Britain. These could celebrate our biodiversity and heritage, improve public understanding and communicate the value of our coast and sea. They could also improve stewardship by uniting communities to engage with and sustainably manage their local marine area. My major focus is blue carbon though and properly recognising the value of the ocean to a stable climate.

What aspects of surfing and the surfing industry have the biggest negative impacts on our climate?

Belinda Baggs:

Our equipment and the travel required to ride waves is the largest footprint. By just car-pooling and surfing local, we can cut our emissions drastically. Conventional surfboards and wetsuits are toxic. Luckily more sustainable options exist. Choosing yulex rubber, a more sustainably constructed surfboard, or even just simply fixing dings and repairing holes to get the most out of our gear, all makes a difference. Beyond surfing we must consider our everyday emissions. Food is a huge emitter and can be bettered by eating local and minimising meat, fish and dairy consumption. Choose green power or install rooftop solar, listen and learn from indigenous knowledge and connection to country, and always vote for leaders who care for the environment and climate. Surfers For Climate has a guide on wiping out our emissions https://surfersforclimate.org.au/wipeout-your-emissions

Dan Crockett:

Surf culture has a bit of a problem because everything seems to be orientated around the person doing the surfing and others watching the show, often ignoring the environment people are surfing in. So I would love to see more activism within surfing and more appreciation and understanding of the joy of surfing being linked to the need for ocean activism. There are a lot of paradoxes in surfing, such as toxic surfboard materials and neoprene wetsuits, but also progress, such as hard-hitting environmental campaigns that are making real change. But we really need more of this.

Travel plays a big role in the surf industry. How can we better align the role of surf travel with the needs of the climate?

Belinda Baggs:

I am hugely guilty of racking up thousands of miles during my surfing life. Surf travel is a part of surfing that evokes adventure, so giving it up can be difficult. Nowadays I’m more aware of the impacts travel has on global warming. When I’m at home I’m more mindful to surf local. We have all been in a situation where we check the spot we think will be best, drive around for another two hours looking at a handful of other spots, only to return to the first place we started. If there’s a wave in front of me, I surf it. I try and ride my bike to the beach when possible, or if going an extra few miles, go with mates and car-pool. It’s inevitable that eventually I have to get on a plane, so I always make sure to offset with Sea Trees who plant mangroves to sequester the carbon we have emitted and restore ecosystems https://sea-trees.org

Dan Crockett:

The Covid pandemic has shown people that if we do need to make change, we can, and we can do it fast. It's amazing what we can achieve when we're forced to. It would be a shame if we go back to business as usual. We need to act more sustainably. Of course surf travel is enriching and educational and it has value and it opens our minds and supports communities. That's very important, but surf travel can also be environmentally damaging, so we have to balance out our impacts. Ultimately decarbonisation of the travel industry, the energy industry and the surf industry will be very beneficial. And there are choices we can make to support this every day. Young people are really waking up the climate crisis, and that's powerful because they genuinely care. I have a lot of faith in the youth. Of course I’m also impressed by the activist groups and I'd love to see a greater level of philanthropic support going to these organisations.

What can we do as surfers to help protect and sustain our climate?

Belinda Baggs:

Stand up for the protection of our waters. As surfers, we see environmental degradation first hand. So when a development threatens the places we love, fight for them. Just last year here in Australia our southern coastline was threatened by proposed oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight. This united tens of thousands of surfers across the country to write to MP’s, rally their local council in opposition, and turn up to protest. With our friends help in Norway the project was withdrawn. The same is happening again near Sydney with a proposal to drill for gas.

The effects of global warming are drastically impacting the earth’s climate systems causing major changes to our weather. Large storm events are creating bigger swells and these are literally moving the bottom contour of our reefs and beaches. This doubled with sea level rise is creating more erosion along our coastlines. At the same time, ocean heatwaves are wiping out kelp forests (a major sequester of carbon) and bleaching coral reefs. These same reefs and the animal inhabitants are also experiencing ocean acidification that disintegrates their exoskeletons. This is occurring on The Great Barrier Reef as well as many of our favourite and prized waves closer to the equator. Imagine no more Fijian walls or Indo barrels?

Surfing now attracts people from all walks of life. We are no longer outcasts sleeping on our mates couches. We make real money. We can make real change. One of the quickest ways to create change is to invest our hard earned cash in institutions that invest in renewable energy. And as lovers of the ocean it’s our responsibility to protect it.

Dan Crockett:

We have limited understanding about the role that the deep sea plays and it's very important that we understand this better before we commit to any deep sea mining because the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change by leaving the seafloor undisturbed is huge. A better understanding of the challenges we are facing is really important. Things like acidification and eutrophication are complicated. Ocean acidification is the ongoing decrease in the pH in our oceans, caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, usually caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Eutrophication is a process that encourages the growth of algae, preventing sunlight reaching water plants and animals and damaging environments. The more we educate ourselves the more we can shape decisions in terms of our daily lives.

Campaigning really helps drive education as well. Standing up and being heard is crucial. The Seaspiracy film has prompted a backlash, but it has raised awareness about the impacts of overfishing and the human rights abuses in the fishing industry. This drives the desire for a better understand of the issues and more accurate science. We cannot underestimate the power of movements like Extinction Rebellion. I’m also really impressed by Engine No.1 who are an activist head hedge fund trying to drive positive environmental and community change from within the financial system. And I'm encouraged by the Biden administration in the US being on the front foot for the environment, through John Kerry, and I hope other nations will build on that momentum. More surfer politicians would be a good thing!

Surfing is a big joy in our daily lives and we want to maintain that, so it's super important for surfers to rise up as an activist force. Historically surfing has been on the fringes, with a rich activist history. We should now channel this into supporting the environment that gives us so much. A minister recently said to me that us ocean people are too nice, we should demand change. We should never underestimate the power of the people.

TheWave_ClimateSurfers_Blog_Saml_Bleakley_Bristol_Surf