by Erica M. Peterson
Dec 03, 2008
When Stephanie Comer sailed the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean in 2001 with her father, Lands’ End founder Gary Comer, and her 8-month-old daughter Siena, the experience changed their lives.
Although several vessels have made it through the water route since it thwarted early explorers such as John Cabot, Henry Hudson and Jacques Cartier, the ice that summer should have made the route impassable. As
he studied the map, Comer realized the western half of the passage was probably iced over, but he decided to attempt the voyage anyway.
“If you want to get off now, go ahead!” he said to his family onboard, after a re-con flight down Peel Sound revealed low ice levels, Stephanie recalled. She stayed with her father and their yacht, the Turmoil.
It took them 13 days to sail the 2,730 nautical miles (3,140 miles) from Pond Inlet to the Bering Straits, with hardly an iceberg in sight. In a 2004 speech for the Explorer’s Club, where he received the Lowell Thomas Award as a “champion of conservation,” Comer noted the surprising lack of ice along the passage. “It seemed like a miracle, the ice continued to break up and melt away before us—we steamed west on Lancaster Sound to Resolute and South down Peel Sound, over the bones of Erebus and Terror and the brave men of the Franklin Expedition, through the James Clark Ross Straights and West into the Beaufort Sea. Thirteen days later Turmoil was in the Pacific Ocean having transited the Northwest Passage,” he wrote.
The relative absence of ice throughout the passage concerned Comer and eventually spawned his passionate interest in abrupt climate change. Before his death in 2006, he studied the technical papers of scientists across the globe, tracked down leaders in the field to fund their research and passed on his passion to Stephanie and her brother Guy. Today, they oversee her family’s climate change philanthropy.
In a political atmosphere where global warming became a battleground of debate that hampered funding, the Comer Science and Education Foundation stepped up to try to make climate research the priority. “There’s really a deplorable lack of funding in this country, I think, for scientists and research, specifically in this area,” Stephanie said. “And the last eight years have been really rough.”
Climate change in and of itself isn’t necessarily unusual. The planet has undergone cycles of warming and cooling for hundreds of thousands of years. In the first half of the 20th century, Serbian scientist Milutin Milanković tied cyclical climate change to the Earth’s orbit. The thing that worried Comer and scientists in the field, however, was the human link between greenhouse gases and global warming and the possibility of accelerating global warming to a tipping point of abrupt climate change. That would mean radical temperature swings that can happen over a period of as little as a few decades rather than millennia.
Comer’s epiphany in the Arctic motivated him to put a portion of his Lands’ End profit— $1 billion when he sold the company to Sears in 2002—into abrupt climate change research.
His strategy? Funnel his money directly to leading climate scientists through fellowships for graduate and postdoctoral students to study with these mentors and learn the field. Initially Comer’s goal was to donate $1 million. But, by now, Stephanie Comer estimates that the Comer Foundation has given close to $50 million to climate change research alone. Her father and her mother, Frances, also donated $84 million to the Comer Children’s Hospital and to pediatric medicine at the University of Chicago.
For Stephanie and Guy, the goal remains to fund research addressing abrupt climate change, and they are doing so through grants to 21 scientists dedicated to the subject.
The scientists gathered recently to share their research at the family’s Wisconsin estate, a place fondly called “the farm” and set in an idyllic patchwork of hills and forests. At the conference, scientists unequivocally linked the current global warming to human activities, using evidence they have gathered from ice cores, glaciers, drylands and caves.
But they said they are still looking for answers to explain the triggers that ignite abrupt climate change; the reasons climate patterns in the northern hemisphere are different than those in the southern hemisphere, and the fundamental connection between global warming and CO2, a gas emitted by fossil fuels such as gasoline.
“There are many unanswered questions and in order for us to plan what’s going to happen, you need to understand them,” Stephanie said. Though the research focuses on the big picture, she is also an advocate of the small changes individuals can make to further stall climate change.
“There are sort of the big questions, and then I think we have to take it down to how in our daily lives can we continue emitting less carbon,” she said.
The Comer Foundation and the league of dedicated climate change scientists working with it is Comer’s “unexpected legacy,” Stephanie said. Mike Kaplan, a geochemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University told her that the foundation’s philanthropy has moved the field forward 15 to 20 years.
For now, the Comer Foundation plans to continue to support the scientists, host an annual conference and rally additional support for climate change research. Eventually, Stephanie would like to see their research translate into actual policy.
“Boy, I wish my dad were still here to see all this and to push it along because he was truly a visionary,” Stephanie said. “I think that in our small way my brother and I are really trying to continue and to push his vision forward.”