Brief Encounter

Ranulph Fiennes: I’ve changed my mind on climate change

The explorer and author on suppressing his wimpish inner voice—and when the climate scientists’ case became unarguable

March 27, 2024
Illustration by Michael Rea
Illustration by Michael Rea

What is the first news event you can recall?

It’s probably what everyone responds with: the assassination of John F Kennedy. I was driving at the time; the news came through on the radio. I can remember people stopping their cars to process it all.

What is the biggest problem of all?

Climate change. And I didn’t think that way—I used to think that the climate records just went up and down, up and down, regardless of human activity—until about 10 or 15 years ago. That’s when, for me, the science—and the case made by climate scientists—became unarguable. Besides, it’s happening: you hear of Caribbean islanders having to leave the places they live, where their parents lived, their grandparents… because of rising sea levels.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

To me, history is behind us and ahead of us—so I’m talking about future history. The day I’d be really, really pleased to witness would be the day when Russia is beaten in Ukraine.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

My dad, although I never met him because he was killed four months before I was born. He was in command of a Scottish tank regiment, the Scots Greys, in the North African theatre—where he was wounded five times—in the Second World War, and later involved in some of the famous landings elsewhere. There are many stories of his bravery and daring, including of the time he went for a walk and a smoke, without his pistol, and discovered four German soldiers in a cave. He pointed his pipe at them in the dark and said, “Hände hoch!”—“Hands up!”—and brought them in. That was him all over.

What is your favourite quotation?

“With God all things are possible”—from the gospel of Matthew. 

What have you changed your mind about?

Climate change. See above!

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

It’s a while ago now. “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan (1998).

What ought to be the next frontier for exploration?

Well, I’ve been involved in arguments over whether it’s the deep ocean or outer space. Although it’s not an either-or situation, I think I’m more on the side of deep-ocean exploration. Each time they take a new depth in the sea, they seem to actually find new types of organism. Going into outer space costs a lot more and is more unlikely to find anything interestingly new.  

Have you learnt more about yourself or more about the world in your exploring career?

Definitely the world outside—because whenever we go on an expedition we are, quite simply, concentrating on the world outside. The inner battle is that you have an uninvited, wimpish voice that you’ve got to defeat. It’s more an act of suppression—suppressing that voice—than of learning anything you didn’t previously know about yourself.

Would your work have been easier or more difficult if you’d embarked on it now?

Of course, in many ways, it’s much, much easier now—we have GPS systems, satellite phones, all manner of other technological innovations that can help us cross the ice, climb the peak, navigate the deep-sea trench or whatever the case may be. However, there’s a bigger problem now with, in a way, temptation: just as it’s easier to keep going forward, it’s also easier to turn back. What if you’re feeling, say, the effects of frostbite? Will you resort to that satellite phone and get picked up, rather than keeping on going?

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I get vertigo. I remember when I finally climbed Everest—at the third attempt, when I was 65 years old—I struggled somewhat with the view from the top. 

Ranulph Fiennes’s latest book, “Around the World in 80 Years” (Hodder, £25), is out now. His biography of TE Lawrence is published by Penguin and will be out in paperback in July