04 November 2022

Endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh urges climate action at Cop27 to save corals

04 November 2022

Endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh has urged world leaders at Cop27 in Egypt to “put their heads under the water” to see the coral reefs at risk of being lost without rapid climate action.

The UN patron of the oceans is calling for nations to drastically cut their emissions to tackle the climate crisis and for at least 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected to help them be more resilient to global warming.

He is also warning against labelling peaceful climate protesters as “ecoterrorists or extremists”, saying the voices of people who care about the planet must be heard.

The real extremists are organisations and companies who know the impacts of the climate crisis and are not taking action, he said.

Mr Pugh has just completed a multi-day swim across the Red Sea, ahead of the UN climate meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh over the next two weeks, to raise awareness of the threat to coral reefs from global warming.

The UN’s scientific review body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said 70-90% of coral reefs would be lost with global warming of 1.5C but would all but vanish in a world with 2C rises.

The high-risk swim involved Mr Pugh crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the Gulf of Suez, which saw him at one point caught between two tankers, in large waves and with a shark underneath him.

But he also swam over wildlife-rich coral reefs in warm waters off the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“I’ve just swum over some of the most incredible, beautiful coral imaginable; it’s the colours that are so vibrant, the purples, yellows, and green, little tiny goldfish, big fish, sharks and turtles, and I’m looking at this and saying this is a natural wonder of Earth,” Mr Pugh said.

“I want world leaders to come to Cop27 and I want them to put their heads under the water and see what we risk losing unless we take urgent, immediate action,” he told the PA news agency.

People standing and campaigning for the protection of our planet - this language matters - it's not extreme. Peaceful protests, that's not extreme, that's inconvenient

Mr Pugh’s swim took him through Sharm El-Sheikh, which he said had beautiful views out over the sea with amazing sunsets, and that under the water was also amazing, but “that will go very soon”.

The swimmer and campaigner is returning to the Egyptian resort to attend the climate talks.

He said his message to world leaders was that “all of us, now, with no exception have to reduce our emissions”, and that “we need to be protecting at least 30% of our oceans”.

Mr Pugh, who has swum in places including the Arctic and Antarctica to raise awareness of environmental damage, said he also had a message over the use of language to describe campaigners around the world as eco-terrorists and extremists.

“Fifty million people displaced in Pakistan, a third of the country underwater – that’s extreme. When I was in Greenland last year, the Ilulissat glacier is moving at a speed of 40 metres per day in summer – that’s extreme.

“Wildfires across Europe last year, even on the outskirts of London – that’s extreme.

“People standing and campaigning for the protection of our planet – this language matters – it’s not extreme. Peaceful protests, that’s not extreme, that’s inconvenient.”

And he said: “Who are the real extremists here? It’s the organisations and companies that know full well the impacts of the climate crisis and are not taking action.”

He added: “We’ve got to get real about how language matters, and describing them (protesters) as terrorists and wanting to use domestic legislation to close them out is not the right response.”

Mr Pugh said climate change is “the defining issue of our generation”, that will impact every single person on the planet, every future generation and the whole of the animal kingdom.

Young people would be at the forefront of the climate crisis, he said, pointing to Africa where the average age is 18 years old, and added: “What message are we sending to the youth to be describing these environmental campaigners as terrorists?”.

All voices needed to be heard at Cop27, he urged, including environmental campaigners.

“These are people who care deeply about the environment, they care deeply about the animal kingdom,  they care deeply about the impact this is going to have on all the nations of the world.

“We need to listen to them. They need to be heard,” he said.

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