Lindsey and I just turned 35. We’re at the point in our lives when we’re supposed to start a family or plunge fully into our careers. Some of our friends are buying houses, others are waiting for their second child, and a few are negotiating for tenure-track professorships. In contrast, Lindsey and I just left our jobs — hers with the state of California, helping communities adapt to sea-level rise, and mine with a private foundation researching global environmental challenges.
Next Thursday we will pack our bikes into cardboard boxes, take them to the San Francisco airport, and get on a plane to Istanbul. And then, over the next eight to 12 months, we will pedal more than 8,000 miles from Turkey to Bangladesh.
Note about this map: We may have to skip large parts of the route in China due to challenges with visas.
People have asked if this is our honeymoon (we got married last November), and to some degree it is, although we started planning this journey well before we got engaged. The real reason we’re doing this ride is the same reason we chose careers focused on global environmental issues: We’re fascinated by our planet, and we want to explore it in order to better understand it and meet the people with whom we share it. And, in our opinion, the best way to experience a large swath of the Earth is to bike at 10 miles per hour for months on end, riding at the mercy of the elements and learning about the lives of people we meet along the way.
Eight and a half years ago I departed on a similar journey, leaving a research job at Stanford to bike to the southern tip of South America. As I traveled, I used my background in climate science to draw attention to the effects of climate change. My goal was to broadcast a message: Climate change is serious, and we need to act. While I reached many people with this message, through both classroom presentations and media appearances, what struck me the most was how my own views changed, and how much I learned.
While I set out to talk about climate change, I witnessed firsthand many other global challenges, such as poverty and violent conflict. Climate change is just one of many pressing problems that humanity faces, and these problems are all interconnected — we’ll have to reduce emissions while also increasing energy for people around the globe who currently use almost none. The trip also deeply personalized the threat of climate change; sharing meals with subsistence farmers who suffer due to storms and droughts, and visiting unique ecosystems that may be destroyed by rising temperatures, showed me just what is at risk.
I have captured this trip — the adventure, and what I learned — in my recent book, The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate. On this next journey through Asia, Lindsey and I will continue the effort to put a face on climate change and expand our own understanding of the issue. We’ll be writing here, and on our website, about our trip and about what climate change means for the places we visit.
It’s an enormous privilege to take time to explore the world, and we know that long bicycle trips documenting areas at risk won’t solve climate change. (The carbon emissions from our flight to Asia will actually make it worse.) But we do believe that if we’re to build public will to address this challenge, we need to do a better job of understanding how our emissions affect both our backyard and the far ends of the Earth. Our goal is to increase people’s understanding and encourage action through sharing what we learn — we’ll be giving presentations during our trip and when we return to the U.S.
The countries we plan to bike through face serious challenges: In Turkey and the surrounding Mediterranean region, drought is expected to increase dramatically. Water shortages may have even played a role in the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria. The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, once one of the world’s largest lakes, has shrunk from overuse to less than one tenth of its original size. Though not caused by climate change, this environmental disaster highlights the extent of our dependence on natural resources, many of which are threatened by rising temperatures. Further south — in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh — people in some of the most densely populated river basins in the world live under threat of flooding every year, and rising sea levels put tens of millions of people at risk.
Or at least that’s what we’ve read. Next week we’re going to get on our bikes and see for ourselves. Follow us here, or on rideforclimate.com, and we’ll share with you what we learn.