By Rob Dube
Dr. James McClintock is a member of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation Board of Advisors.
Dr. James McClintock is one of the world’s leading voices when it comes to Antarctica and how climate change is transforming its unparalleled landscape. He’s made such an impact that an Antarctic peninsula—McClintock Point—has been named after him!
Today, Dr. McClintock is the Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a Trustee for The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, and the author of the Bill Gates-endorsed book Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land.
But the Antarctic has given Dr. McClintock more than wisdom on why shrinking ice fields affect the ecosystems of penguins, whales, and other native wildlife. He’s also discovered insights about humanity and leadership that he never would’ve learned outside of Antarctica like the importance of respect, conversation, and interconnectedness of our world.
Dr. McClintock first visited the sub-Arctic in 1982 as a graduate student. There, he encountered a continent filled with vast landscapes and extraordinary animals like macaroni penguins, humpback whales, and elephant seals. “We were surrounded by abundant marine life. It titillated the senses,” he remembers. Dr. McClintock’s curious mind was fed non-stop, and he’d never view life the same way again. “Everywhere I looked there was a new question to be asked.”
Since that trip, Dr. McClintock has dedicated his career to the study of Antarctica. This March, he returned from Palmer Station where he does most of his work—it was his fifteenth expedition. “Antarctica will change you for the rest of your life,” he says. “You feel like you’re on another planet. The ocean is teeming with life. You’re watching penguins porpoise along the sides of the ship. You’re watching humpbacks bubble feed.
“Instead, bring up the fact that your neighbor’s tomato garden has been blooming earlier.” This can open up a friendly chat that smoothly segues into the region’s changing weather patterns—something both people can personally relate with. “When they notice these things happening around them,” Dr. McClintock says. “They’ll begin to make that connection. It can be a powerful tool to make them realize the reality.”
“The abundance of wildlife. The vastness of the scale of the landscape. The remoteness. It all conspires to be the most otherworldly place on the planet that you can go to. It builds a sense of wanting to take care of Antarctica, realizing the fragility of this place and its role of taking care of the planet.”
But much has changed since his first visit. Then, Dr. McClintock remembers the thrill of massive glaciers calving—or chunks falling into the sea and turning into icebergs. Occurring only once or twice a week, it was a big event for Dr. McClintock and his colleagues. “People would run down the hall, crowd around the door, and peek out into the bay to watch the waves,” he recollects.
Now, glaciers calve several times daily. The once exhilarating phenomenon is so commonplace that it’s become a symbolic call to action on global warming’s ramifications. According to NASA, the continent’s ice is melting six times faster than it was in the 1990s. “It makes Antarctica the canary in the coal mine,” he says.
To Dr. McClintock, climate change and global warming isn’t a question. He’s seen it with his own eyes. Still, he can grasp why those far removed from his first-hand experiences remain skeptical. What Dr. McClintock does find confounding is the reluctance for many to even open up the conversation in a way that doesn’t turn sour.
Authentic Conversations about Hard Topics
“We can’t solve this problem if we can’t even talk about it.”— Dr. James McClintock
If you’re a business leader, you know that conversations can grow tense fast. It’s these scenarios that Dr. McClintock wants to eliminate from the climate conversation—or any discussion with the potential for conflict.
In 2018, Dr. McClintock joined the Nature Conservancy as a spokesman for the Can We Talk Climate campaign. “One thing that we don’t do enough of in the United States is just talking about climate change,” he says. The campaign is less about convincing others about the threat of global warming. Instead, it’s about opening up a dialogue. After all, nothing can be resolved without genuine discussion.
The campaign doesn’t ask for money. Instead, your pledge promises that within the next week you’ll talk to someone about climate change. To help ease into a potentially uncomfortable conversation, the website offers strategies for discussing the topic so that common ground can be reached. “Don’t become a scientist and speak down to somebody,” Dr. McClintock says. “Instead, bring up the fact that your neighbor’s tomato garden has been blooming earlier.” This can open up a friendly chat that smoothly segues into the region’s changing weather patterns—something both people can personally relate with. “When they notice these things happening around them,” Dr. McClintock says. “They’ll begin to make that connection. It can be a powerful tool to make them realize the reality.”
It’s a valuable leadership lesson beyond climate change as well. Open, conversational dialogues offer leaders the opportunity to engage and to listen. No subject has to become contentious or rise into an argument. Nobody has to walk away as a “winner” or a “loser.” Instead, it’s an exercise in genuinely hearing each other’s thoughts and perspectives with respect.
The best leaders also understand that success depends on interconnectedness—we all play a role in the outcome. Strong companies emerge when countless individuals support each other from CEOs to investors to customers to interns.
For Dr. McClintock, this realization understandably ties back to Antarctica. “As a marine ecologist, I’m always thinking about how different systems are interconnected,” he says. “In the context of climate change, I’m seeing people making connections and seeing the impact it has on our daily lives.” Most notably, he’s seen an interest rise in hybrid and electric cars, solar power, and other sustainable energy options.
If a gardener can connect why calving glaciers relate to their early crops, then there’s an unending potential for how humanity can shift their mindsets to create a better future for our entire planet through great conversations.
Watch me chat with Dr. McClintock on YouTube. Learn about his adventures in Antarctica, the science of climate change, how we positively impact our planet’s future, and more!