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Sailors Stories

Peter Firstbrook

Scientist, BBC filmmaker, author and yachtsman Peter Firstbrook is seriously concerned about the political lethargy over warming oceans. Dick Durham met him at his Thames-side home.

We sit in front of the log burner at Peter Firstbrook’s Oxfordshire home, in a picturesque village famous for being the setting of the Midsomer Murders drama series. Not so well known is that Dorchester-on-Thames floods more frequently than it used to thanks to heavier and more prolonged rainfall caused by climate change.

“I find it deeply depressing,” Peter, 71, tells Ocean Sailor Magazine, “because we have been aware of global warming for 40 years now and yet even at the recent COP26 in Glasgow the political will to halt warming to 1.5 Celsius was not there.”

China is building international airports at many new cities the west isn’t aware of, “Wuhan is bigger than London but nobody had ever heard of it until the pandemic,” said Peter. With all the concrete involved, the production of which is intensive, not to mention the rich agricultural land all this development is covering over, plus the coal-fired power stations Beijing is building (which, admittedly, they are committed to halting eventually), Peter thinks there is no reasonable chance of meeting the 1.5 target.

As an oceanographer, Peter says such facts mean that all of us will have to live in the real world and try to limit the heat increase to no more than 2.0 Celsius.

“If we can restrict it to that we will be doing well, but even so there will be serious consequences. We will have more storms, more droughts, more wildfires, like those we’ve seen in California and Australia and also more mass migration.”

This is because sea levels are continuing to rise and thousands of people are already living virtually at sea level. Places like Mauritius and the Seychelles, many islands in the Pacific, parts of South America and the Ganges delta will all be underwater with the predicted 1 m rise by the end of this century, Peter said.

“And Europe and the US are going to have to put up with migration on a scale they’ve never seen before. These people will have no choice as their homelands become uninhabitable.”

Peter, who compiled many of his observations for his latest book Coastwise (Fernhurst Books 2021) which we review in this month’s Mariner’s Bookshelf, from Svea, his Swedish-built Vindo 40, has been a sailor all his life.

He learned to sail in Mirror and Enterprise dinghies on the gravel pits near his childhood home in Chertsey, Surrey. He won the British Moth national championships twice in his youth before leaving home to study oceanography at Swansea University, where he managed to continue dinghy sailing in Fireflies.

He was at sea all the time carrying out fieldwork before embarking on post-graduate research at the University of East Anglia in Norwich which is where he bought his first cruising boat: a 28ft gaff-rigged converted ship’s lifeboat. He sailed it on the River Yare and in which he explored the East Coast of England, with the occasional Channel dash to Calais.

The University of East Anglia was embroiled in a major climate scandal many years after Peter left. A server at its Climate Research Unit was hacked and false information was leaked to journalists claiming global warming was a scientific conspiracy. The hack was timed as a smear campaign timed to discredit the Copenhagen Summit on climate change in November 2009.

But an inquiry by the House of Commons Science & Technical Committee and the US Environment Protection Agency, among others, exonerated the unit and all charges against them were withdrawn.

“It put back the climate issue by a decade,” said Peter, who, 20 years earlier, had joined a climate think tank in Washington DC to work out a way forward to bring the issue to the general populace.

Following his work at the University of East Anglia, Peter joined the BBC as a documentary filmmaker making films about the environment, including a 16-part series on oceanography.

But sailing was never very far from his professional interests and he also made a six-part series, The Voyage of the Matthew, to mark the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland in 1497.

Peter built a 29ft steel double-ender, very similar to French sailing legend, Bernard Moitessier’s Joshua, in which he planned to make an Atlantic crossing, but love got in the way and he married Paula, a psychologist. They and their four children have enjoyed sailing on a number of craft including Truant, a 45ft Looe Lugger, formerly owned by former Daily Express newsman, author and World War II SOE agent, George Millar, who made her famous in his book Isabel and the Sea.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the sea and the interdependency of its systems: tides, currents, winds, waves with the rocks and fossils, fish and seabirds,” said Peter. This led him to study the geology of his own coast that of the UK.

Essentially the northwest is rock and the southeast is mud and with geological time the sea levels are changing naturally: Scotland is rising by 1 millimetre a year while the southeast is sinking – with help from erosion – by up to a metre. This is as a result of up to three kilometres of ice which once covered the UK, having melted 10,000 years ago. It might be a long time ago, but the release of all that weight is still having an effect.

A much greater impact on sea level rise is from thermal expansion: two-thirds of the planet is covered by water and as the water warms up it expands. This plus the extra water from melting ice caps are having a “profound effect on sea level.”

Peter told Ocean Sailor that stopping the human impact on global warming is like trying to stop a supertanker….it takes time. “Even if we stopped producing carbon dioxide tomorrow, emissions would still continue to rise for 30 years,” he said.

I asked Peter if there was any doubt whatsoever that climate change was nothing to do with human activity.

“We can never say absolutely, but so many scientific predictions have come true over many years. For a long time, the BBC put the ‘other view’ in reporting the climate debate to give balance. But they have stopped doing that because less than 2% of global scientists say it has nothing to do with burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases caused by human activity. Feeling at the BBC was that this was no longer giving balance but in fact was giving airtime to a lot of wacky ideas which was a less than the honourable thing to do.”

Only when insurance premiums on homes for flooding and also on boats for storm damage start to accelerate will the layman begin to realise climate change is real, Peter believes.

And that is now happening.

So, what can we do?

“We must start consuming less. My daughter said she was going to replace her fossil fuel car with an electric one. I told her not to, but instead to make do with what she’s got. The message is simple: mend and make do, don’t stimulate the market.”

With that, Peter laughed, when he conceded that he still makes purchases online from mass-market providers supplied by Chinese goods, as it is so much easier than a trip to the shop. Which of those two options is ‘greener’ is a moot point!

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