As he paddled up to the Manhattan Kayak Company’s dock on a pretty Sunday afternoon this June, Steve Posselt appeared just as I’d expect a salty Australian adventurer: brushy beard, eyes the color of the ocean, and sun-drenched, speckled skin. But in talking to him, what stood out particularly were his gentle spirit and his epic environmental mission—one that’s taking him nearly 5,000 miles around the world by kayak.
The 62-year-old retired water engineer is making this trek to draw attention to climate change, an issue that’s especially important to him for the sake of his daughters and five grandchildren. Posselt survived a serious motorcycle accident in 2006 and said it gave him fresh determination to make his life count. “I [have] to try to do my best to make the world livable for my grandkids,” he said. His family sends encouragement via email as he paddles halfway around the world from Australia to France.
Posselt grew up surfing and has been an avid kayaker for several decades. This is his fifth and most ambitious long-distance trip. He finds that traveling by kayak is “a way of talking to people who wouldn’t otherwise listen. People are interested in the kayak and the journey and that allows you to open up a conversation.”
On a Mission to Connect the Dots
Posselt’s trip aims to connect the dots of recent, extreme global climate events. On January 15, 2015, his odyssey began on foot hiking up a sunny hill in Canberra, Australia with his wheeled kayak harnessed to his back. His hometown of Canberra has experienced firestorms—blazes so immense they birth their own weather systems—and Sydney’s yearly brush fires have started unusually soon for the season. Posselt hiked more than 100 miles from Canberra to reach the water, and along the way, “My shoes actually melted a bit in the heat and my feet blistered pretty badly,” he said.
His stops in New Orleans and New York honored those affected by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and up next he’s catching a ship to Europe to recognize the U.K.’s flooding and recent drought episodes in France.
This route will put Posselt in Paris by early October, in time for the COP-21 (21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) the following month. “This is all about climate change,” Posselt writes. “Deep [carbon] emission cuts must be the outcome of the Paris climate talks.”
Navigating the Peaks and Ebbs
Although his support team and family have helped him through many obstacles, at times it can be a taxing and dangerous journey. Posselt has turned upside-down several times, had his gear scattered in strong winds, and braved 10-foot swells off the coast of New South Wales. And he is the only person on record to kayak up the Lower Mississippi during flood season. “It was very tough physically,” he says, “but it was a lot tougher without support from the people that I thought would be there for me.” He had to abandon the high-water river and resorted to biking the remaining Southern stretch.
Despite his eventful journey, interest from most mainstream media has been thin. Posselt says there’s a common factor underlying countries like Australia and the U.S., which have two of the highest climate denial rates: “A lot of our media is biased toward anti-science.” In Australia, every major television channel eagerly awaited Posselt’s previous 2007 kayak trip from Brisbane to Adelaide. The difference was, “back then, I didn’t tell them it was about climate change until after I arrived,” he said.
Reasons for Hope
Posselt takes heart from the 89 percent of global citizens who indicated on a recent Worldwide Views on Climate and Energy survey that climate change should be a national priority in their country. Nearly two-thirds said that negotiators at this winter’s climate summit should do “whatever it takes” to slow global warming. “They want drastic action to come from the Paris climate talks,” Posselt says. Most people realize: “When science says, ‘we’ve got a problem,’ you really should start to listen.”
Posselt will be in New York City until July 14, when he will hop a boat to Southampton and paddle across England. In November, he will exhibit his kayak at the United Nations COP21 in Paris and hopes to publish a book to pair with Cry Me a River, which he wrote on Australia’s water crisis.