World leaders have converged in Paris this week for COP21, the United Nations conference meant to foster a global consensus on climate change. As is often the case with these events, it feels incredibly late. Back in 2008, Julia Whitty wrote in Mother Jones about her trip to Antarctica. Her reflections on the fragility of the landscape — from fast-melting icebergs to dying penguin colonies — feel eerily prophetic, with a layer of nostalgic patina already forming in the edges.
There’s talk aboard the Endeavour of climate change, including from a vocal contingent of naysayers quoting mythical studies. One woman repeatedly cites a fictional cluster of 19,000 denialistas hunkered down in German institutes of higher learning, until someone asks her to prove it. There are also a surprising number of middle grounders leaking equal parts confusion and skepticism about “this global warming business.” The two groups manage to exhibit all five stages of climate-change denial: There’s nothing happening; we don’t know why it’s happening; climate change is natural; climate change is not bad; climate change can’t be stopped. The true believers discover each other mostly through shared incredulous silence.
Yet all come together when we happen upon an ancient ice floe topped with a single sleeping emperor penguin. It’s a juvenile that has just completed its inconceivable genesis in the dark of the Antarctic winter, perched atop its father’s webbed feet, tucked into the brood pouch, enduring 100-knot winds and subzero temperatures. The young bird utters three soft braying calls as we approach, then stands. The motor drives on a hundred cameras whine. Everyone whispers to no one in particular, as all are joined by an invisible thread of respect woven into the collective consciousness by March of the Penguins. You can almost hear the Morgan Freeman narration hang in the air.
Directly ahead lies heavy pack ice, the dividing line between ships and penguins. We turn back, leaving the young bird to its solitude.