Florian Reber, from Zürich, Switzerland, is a sustainability expert with over a decade of experience working across the public and private sectors to accelerate the implementation and realisation of sustainability goals. He is also a lover of mountains and adventure sports, especially splitboarding. Florian started Tales of Change in 2018 to combine these passions, using adventure travel to document the here-and-now impacts of climate change and human responses to them. He spoke with us over Skype from his home in Zürich.
Adventure Uncovered: Florian, how did you first get into adventure?
Florian Reber: Since early childhood, snowboarding has been my big passion. In my late twenties I discovered splitboarding, which opened a new field of possibilities. After living in New York for two years, I realised how much I missed the Alps. Returning to Switzerland in 2014, I got more serious about splitboarding, getting more into mountaineering to access bigger lines. Mountain biking and hiking became my preferred summer activities. I also started doing more photography.
Sounds like a happy return! How did Tales of Change come about?
Tales of Change was born in spring 2018 while recovering from shoulder surgery following a cycling accident. A simple idea to go riding and do some travel photography morphed into the ambition to combine my passions – nature, the outdoors and sports – with my profession – climate and sustainability.
The concept of completing bike rides in iconic locations whilst documenting the impacts of climate change on nature and communities resulted from many conversations with friends. Tales of Change became a three-pronged project, the first part being a full bike and splitboard traverse of the Alps between 22nd October and 29th November 2018 – from Trieste, over Ljubljana, through the Dolomites and the Swiss and French Alps and down to Cannes – coupled with a climate storytelling project. The final two parts will be future trips.
The Alps traverse was 1,900 kilometres, with a 35,000m altitude gain, over 24 mountain passes. I had six good splitboarding days in Switzerland and France, and many fascinating encounters and interviews with locals. I started riding at the end of the 2018 heatwave before Storm Vaia brought massive rains, winds and snow at higher altitudes. Research shows such weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense with climate change. In a way, given my project, it was a most interesting moment to be traversing the Alps!
'Research shows such weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense with climate change.'
Who did you want to speak to on your journey, and why?
A diverse set of people, representing different perspectives. I spoke with climate and forest scientists, foresters, tourism experts, farmers, beekeepers, conservationists, writers, intellectuals, health experts, professional snowboarders and skiers, mountain guides, politicians and environmentalists. They all have in common a close connection to nature; they either depend on nature for their livelihoods or observe and study it, including human adaptations to climate change in the Alps. This connection most interested me.
Did you learn any particularly important lessons?
Firstly, that climate change seemed to be on everybody’s mind – partly because of the dry, hot summer. From literally the first day, on the train from Zurich, people started talking to me about dry agricultural land and lack of water – without me telling them about Tales of Change. This happened throughout the journey.
It was also fascinating to see real-world interdependencies between environmental, social, economic, political and technological spheres. My story on apple plantations in the Vinschgau illustrates this beautifully. I was also in the French Alps when the Gilets Jaunes protests started, triggered by Macron’s eco-tax reform. From a purely environmental perspective, the tax is arguably the right approach. But such taxes always hit the poor hardest, and the reform was one drop too much in France, where many have seen their economic conditions deteriorate. Macron failed to understand people’s worries. A better approach, diverting away from fossil fuels without costing economically stressed people, would have been a policy that taxes fuels while giving rebates, for example through lower heating bills for people in smaller apartments.
What I personally found most valuable was the opportunity to meet people I otherwise would not have in my professional, urban bubble – including people who are still sceptical about the causes of climate change. This was enriching and educational. Although nature was at the heart of the trip, people and what they taught me were my biggest takeaways.
What were the biggest challenges during the trip?
I was lucky to avoid major challenges. The biggest was probably physical. When I started, I still was on cortisone initially, due to an inflamed sciatica; my legs were not in great shape and the nerve pain was annoying (especially during strong headwinds and rain for the first 100km). Riding wise, snow-covered passes and unrideable dirt roads in the South of France were the most technically challenging.
In your experience, how do you think adventure can serve a wider purpose?
Adventure storytelling is a powerful tool for conveying social messages – especially as the outdoors is increasingly trendy. I’m thinking particularly of illuminating the rural-urban connection we sometimes forget, given the adventure-storytelling audience is often young and urban. Sparking emotions is also essential for behavioural change – something adventure storytelling is clearly good at.
Adventure storytelling also shows impact in the present. Scientific reports on climate-change topics often focus on the past (what we have lost) and future (how the world could look, and what needs to happen to avoid the biggest dangers). This is terribly important for policymakers and business, but not necessarily for the public. Climate change is an incredibly complex issue, and the history of climate-change communication shows we have largely failed to communicate the urgency of the challenge, and that the benefits of solutions to the climate crisis greatly surpass their costs.
But to serve a wider social purpose, we need to communicate adventure sports differently. Energy drink brands produce amazing footage, but if we only sell the dream of untouched Alaskan lines, people will want to heli-ski! If we show human-powered adventure stories around fulfilment through connecting with nature, we can create very different examples and ideas worth aspiring to.
How do you want your trips to fit into this, and what successes have you seen so far?
I hope my stories make a small contribution by documenting climate-change impact happening right now on our doorsteps, and showing connections that might not be so obvious. We are the biggest driver of environmental change, and showing examples of this in operation is fascinating.
'I hope my stories make a small contribution by documenting climate-change impact happening right now on our doorsteps, and showing connections that might not be so obvious.'
I am also convinced that people who experience and value nature through leisure are more inclined to protect it politically. I know I am largely talking to the converted, but if I can trigger new perceptions among a small group of people, I am happy. I believe some of my friends and family members now look differently at climate change.
Globally, governments are negotiating a New Global Deal for Nature, to be adopted in Beijing in 2020. This, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals comprise the international sustainability agenda until 2030. Those frameworks are a big step forward, yet the real test will be implementation. This will require strong and bold leadership and effective and inclusive policies and regulation, designed with a long-term vision. But individuals also need to contribute and back the right politicians. That’s where a connection to nature fits into the puzzle. We should incentivise people to discover nature at home, be conscious of the change that is happening around them and realise the negative implications of not protecting it. Platforms like Adventure Uncovered can make an important contribution to such a movement.
What advice would you offer aspiring adventurers looking to make a positive impact?
Find a niche and make a credible contribution. Ask for advice, listen carefully, be humble and abandon ideas for better ones. Value and understand divergent perspectives. And recognise that if you can go on such adventures, you are likely very privileged. Use that privilege for social impact; put the cause upfront. Finally, take some risks! Embrace ambiguity and be curious.
'Recognise that if you can go on such adventures, you are likely very privileged. Use that privilege for social impact.'
And what does the future hold for you?
I plan to join a bike ride in June 2019 with Brazilian scientists in the Cerrado Forest, where a lot of deforestation is causing emissions and threatening biodiversity and indigenous livelihoods and rights. From there, I will go to Canada and cycle down the Rocky Mountains, before travelling by train from San Francisco to New York for the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit und NYC Climate Week in September 2019. I am in conversation with potential supporters for these trips, and would love to explore shared ideas with other people and organisations interested in teaming up. Unlike during the Alps traverse, I will need to use planes. I will double compensate the resulting emissions and support a reforestation project, to be 100% climate positive (rather than just climate neutral).