Cameron Mackay is an explorer and a climate change activist. The 19 year old Glasgow undergraduate has been on expeditions to the Indian Himalayas, Greenland, and has trained with the veteran explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. The Glasgow Guardian asked him a few questions ahead of his upcoming expedition to Tanzania.
Guardian: You were relatively young when you first travelled to the Himalayas with the British Exploring Society. What effect did this experience have on you, and did it change the way you think about climate change?
Mackay: Yeah. I didn’t know what to expect. It was during my sixth year at school that I was fundraising for it. It was £5,000 that I had to raise, so it was quite stressful on that end, but it was great. It was really rewarding. We did loads of cool events for it, and by the time I left school I had done all of that and I was about to go on the trip. It was a real eye-opener – I didn’t know what to expect going out there, but it’s just an incredible landscape. It’s so unlike Scotland. I had done loads of hiking in Scotland at school, and I was kind of expecting to be able to draw similarities, and there are some. Some days I would be really homesick, and I would just see the snow-capped rolling hills in the distance and think ‘It looks like Scotland!’ In terms of climate change, I was really struck by the impact it was having because it’s actually causing droughts there. You would expect to see these huge glaciers, but what we actually found were tiny glaciers that were just snow patches, really. They are gradually disappearing, and as they disappear, all those valleys are left without melt water, which means they can’t farm, they can’t get water. It was really quite amazing. Since it was the first time I had really been on a trip like that, I felt that because I didn’t know this stuff, it has to be communicated to people in the UK. So I think the biggest thing I took from it was the need to share things like this, to come back and communicate these issues to people in the UK. […] It gave me the drive to go on and do things in the future, and an insight into expeditions. The first lesson is working really hard, hoping you get the money, hoping you’re fit enough to go, and it does come together. It was a good lesson in showing that your efforts do pay off.
Guardian: When you experience these landscapes for the first time, is it immediately obvious the effect that climate change is having on the landscape?
Mackay: It wasn’t obvious to me, and I’m a geography student! You get an initial idea of it in terms of the size of glaciers. I think you start by seeing the original science, which is what you would expect, in a way. You’re expecting the glacier to be melting, you’re expect all of that, but you need to look deeper because, for example, in Greenland, we spent two weeks on the Glaciers, and every day we could see huge chunks of ice coming off, and we were like ‘Wow – this is really having an incredibly negative effect on the landscape; so much ice is being lost.’ We knew of an event where, because of the extreme melt, a river near the town had flooded and caused a bridge to be washed away and, of course, the locals had to fund a new bridge, which was quite expensive and a lot of work, and it temporarily cut off their water supply. We went to see the locals, got a little bit of colloquial evidence to back that up, and formed a really good communication point, but they actually said that they were having a really positive experience of climate change because it meant their economy was booming because of tourism and they could farm because of the warmer climates. You definitely need to look closer at these things, because the original idea you have, as a Westerner, will be completely different from the way the locals interact with it. It’s when you speak to locals that you really get an idea of how people are living with the landscape – that’s when you can really see the full picture. […] Their experience will not always be what you expect.
Guardian: Is going on expeditions to parts of the world most affected by climate change the best way to understand its impact?
Mackay: I would say so. Not everyone needs to go to these places, but to really understand the impact you need people to be doing the right things when they go there. For example, to understand the impact of climate change it’s easy to do science and really close-knit studies about a particular glacier or one stream of melt water, but you can’t just keep that in the academic world because people need to understand it and you need to see the full picture of it, and understand all the different parts of the landscape and human population its hitting. I personally think for people to really understand climate change, you need a good selection of people going there, but those people need to be able to communicate their findings. You need a selection of good scientists, but also people who aren’t scientists like young people or artists, all of whom can add a new perspective to it. It’s really important that people do get a chance to go to these areas, with the right mindset of going to share the story. Also, it’s important that it is communicated well in the UK, because not even one per cent of people will go to these areas, but one hundred per cent of us need to know. […] Using things like art, good writing, and film, those kinds of things, that’s how we can really develop understanding.
Guardian: You trained briefly with British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. What was the best advice that he gave you?
Mackay: It wasn’t so much advice, but he said that with all good expeditions, you get final funding as you get on the plane. He told us a lot. […] No expedition will start with everything in place, you just have to keep pushing, have faith in it, and in the end, it will come together. Working with those people was a big confidence boost. I was seeing people that had done the most amazing stuff, people I had looked up to for ages, and they were saying that they had been through the same thing. Another really good bit of advice was that it doesn’t always have to be ‘that trip’; you can push it back because your plans will always be there. […] The best piece of advice from Ranulph was that expeditions come together as you are setting off. You need to just accept that’s what’s happening and, like with anything, you need to just accept that it will come together in some shape or form. The expedition leader we had in the Himalayas told us that the only certainty on expedition is change, because the expedition we planned for was nothing like what we had at the end. […] You need to just set up your plan initially and know that it will change.
Guardian: What expeditions have you got planned for the future, and what do you want to do once you have graduated?
Mackay: There’s a couple this summer. The first is to Tanzania with the Exploring Society at Glasgow University. Not so much climate change based, but we are looking at Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Africa, near Kilimanjaro, and the type lava it produces, which nobody really understands because there hasn’t been a lot of studies on it. That should be really interesting to go on at the start of the summer. It’s not so climate change based, but hopefully I can build some climate change projects into that. There are glaciers there, and that’s a really interesting side of climate change. Again, it’s about sharing as many different stories as you can, so hopefully I can do a little side project without damaging the team’s motivation. In the second half of the summer, I’m actually going back to the Himalayas with the British Exploring Society at a higher level, a step up from where I was before. I will be creating a short film, about thirty or forty minutes with the young explorers there, between the ages of 16 and 20, and they will be the bulk of the workforce there. We’ll be creating a series of educational resource packs, so that particular points in the curriculum can be linked to climate change and put into schools throughout Scotland and England at the end of it. So yeah, there will be a series of media projects which I’m really looking forward to because I think that will really start a lot of the discussion in schools. After Uni, I’d like to get into communication of these things. Travelling, doing the research, but at the same time building it into education and public engagement projects. I feel like I am very much in the industry of expeditions, going to remote places. Anyone who is doing that has a duty to try and communicate as much as possible, so hopefully that’s what I’ll be doing.
More information about Cameron Mackay’s expeditions can be found at: http://www.changingplanet.co.uk/