From a recent large scientific report from the National Academy of Sciences:
The next decade may decide humanity’s fate:
“[S]elf-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate & cause continued warming on a Hothouse Earth pathway even as human emissions are reduced”
— Alex Steffen (@AlexSteffen) August 6, 2018
— Khalil A. Cassimally (@notscientific) August 7, 2018
My personal opinion – I don’t think the authors would disagree – is we are already in a world of long-term deep uncertainty (though it gets deeper the more we emit) and the necessary response is a multicentury committment to active, flexibly responsive planetary stewardship 6/n
— Bob Kopp (@bobkopp) August 7, 2018
So I hope the conversation isn’t too awkward, but what can our industry do to be part of the solution? I am not sure carbon credits are the answer, and it’s going to take a marriage of multiple solutions to have significant impact. Full disclosure, but it is my own self-awareness that asks these questions, while I commute by car and plane for both work and pleasure. I guess, addressing this is a good enough start to reduce my guilt… “Admitting you have a problem is the first step”. And, this isn’t just about our long-term impact on the environment, because the immediate impact (well before a planet’s potential death throes) are the obliteration of billions of revenues in our industry. This is a pragmatic commentary, and not some cynical capitalist stance. Before the runaway global warming effect truly hobbles the human race, it will have an initial impact on people’s lives, whether around their livelihood and profession, or where they live (due to populations increasingly pushing suburban city planning into fire prone areas). The Wildland-Urban interface is a complex coming of age moment in California alone, to the point of questioning whether desperately needed housing should even be built. So it’s not just global warming’s effect on the planet, and it’s even more immediate than eventual fires (in this case, fires are a relevant proxy to the greater disasters and impacts of overall global warming, such as rising tides, invasive species altering eco-systems, and the like) creating a loss of life and critically damaging property. It’s also about the impact on communities, the resources used, the various revenues lost to cities and regions.
All these issues are far more complex than any human brain can map, because it’s not just those immediate resources of labor and water to fight the fires, but the ripple effect of all the peripheral lives impacted, beyond those immediately losing property or dealing with the tragedy of lost lives. It’s not even just about people who lose homes and become homeless, but also how this impacts the existing homeless, or how the impossibly complex interactions between human influence and our resulting effects on climate and weather. It’s easy to understand that it’s not just our impact on the environment, but the corollary impact of our planet and our species evolving cooperatively as a superorganism, and we don’t understand this symbiosis in great detail. A new book on the topic was reviewed in a recent New York Times article, about using space as a tool to understand terrestrial climate change here on earth.
“Rather than just continuing to procreate and exploit our capacities and resources on Earth, we should recognize that we and our planet are evolving together. Our planet might be viewed as a single living organism, coined Gaia by the scientist and futurist James Lovelock. We have entered a new geological age, what biologists call the Anthropocene, in which we, Homo sapiens, are altering the planet, and our survival depends on understanding this symbiosis. Frank asks: Have other civilizations elsewhere in the universe, evolving through their corresponding Anthropocenes, managed to survive?”
I’ve often thought that it is no longer about climate change, but climate control. This planet didn’t need us to create an inhospitable environment… the atmosphere during the time of dinosaurs would have been toxic to humans. And just as our climate is ever-changing, we’re simply in the green zone, right now, to sustain human life. It’s my estimation that we won’t want to stop climate change, but effectively and absolutely control it, so that the ever evolving atmosphere remains hospitable for human existence. It’s obvious that those interconnected ripple effects are bigger than travel and tourism, and we’ll need to remain focused on our industry, and the tragic and massive effects that will be seen into the future as a new normal, as these complex, integrated issues gain momentum.
Initially, we’ll be seeing a lot of damning, depressing facts. Like the fact that air travel is very bad. Like, so bad that WaPo ran a piece suggesting “If you care about the earth, stop flying”. In fact, it is suggested that a tenth of overall carbon emissions are a direct result of tourism, mostly in relation to air travel. That demand for more luxury, more experiences, and more travel isn’t going to slow down, so trying to engineer some points that go beyond the normal environmental stewardship and sustainability practices. Unfortunately, much of this will simply be messaging and creation of awareness. But how involved will our industry get, when it wholly relies on the transport of these humans to the destination? As the last linked article states, if we don’t involve ourselves, the decisions will be taken our of our hands:
“Given that tourism is set to grow faster than many other economic sectors, the international community may consider its inclusion in the future in climate commitments, such as the Paris accord, by tying international flights to specific nations,” she said.”
Think of those who have come from all over the world, using commerce and transportation, to stay at hotels or camp sites that were closed while Yosemite Valley was closed in 2017, or the direct and indirect impact that the Napa fires had on the community was immeasurable, with long term tourism and staffing issues for the area. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost due to the fires impacting travel and tourism, in 2017, and the long term impacts are still being felt, as businesses continue to close for a variety of related market issues. In the greater scope of our environmental problems, it might be a minor and relatively banal, negligible point of a tremendous problem, one might even say it’s not seeing the forest for the trees. But it’s all on fire, so there’s that.
As for consideration of travel impacts, I am as guilty as anyone…. I’ve been to Iceland within the last 4 years. It was one of the best trips I have ever taken in my life. I’ve also gone to crowded islands and participated in taxing their infrastructure and systems with food, recycling, and trash waste, or passively littered the ocean by enjoying beverages with endless plastic straws. Just the leftovers alone that we can’t consume would draw an environmentalist’s ire. So it’s been on my mind, as we watch a dangerous tipping point for our ability to exist on earth, and we selfishly travel in a way that destroys community or taxes the countries or cities with a new strain.
So, the first sea change revelation, for me, was that travel has *not* always existed. Migration has. Exploration has. But travel is a relatively new phenomenon. Yuval Noah Harari comments on this in his indispensable and vitally important work “Sapiens”:
“most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. Friends giving advice often tell each other, ‘Follow your heart.’ But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day, and the very recommendation to ‘follow your heart’ was implanted in our minds by a combination of nineteenth-century Romantic myths and twentieth-century consumerist myths. The Coca-Cola Company, for example, has marketed Diet Coke around the world under the slogan ‘Diet Coke. Do what feels good.’ Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life’. Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product (a car, new clothes, organic food) or a service (housekeeping, relationship therapy, yoga classes). Every television commercial is another little legend about how consuming some product or service will make life better. 18. The Great Pyramid of Giza. The kind of thing rich people in ancient Egypt did with their money. Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country – they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfill our human potential, and make us happier. Consequently, when the relationship between a millionaire and his wife is going through a rocky patch, he takes her on an expensive trip to Paris. The trip is not a reflection of some independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myths of romantic consumerism. A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted. Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.”
― Yuval Noah Harari,
Mr Dichter also points to several other reasons for the shift. When flag carriers ran air travel as a cartel, flights cost a fortune—over £200 ($230) for the 300-mile jaunt between London and Dublin in the mid-1980s, for instance. But low-cost carriers like Ryanair (whose average fare was €40, or $46, last year) have transformed the industry. The rise of services like Airbnb, that allow locals to rent their homes to visitors, means that a place’s capacity for overnight stays is no longer limited by the number of hotel rooms.
Local authorities are cobbling together strategies to cope. An extreme reaction is to ban tourists entirely (as Mr Duterte did in Boracay) or to cap visitor numbers (as Easter Island has done). Many ports, including Venice, limit the number of cruise ships, and there are calls for cities to limit parking spaces for tourist coaches. Both ships and coaches bring tight-fisted visitors. A study in the British city of Cambridge found that the average coach day-tripper spends just £3.
A more subtle approach is to fiddle with taxes and charges, so that they better reflect the costs tourists impose. Tourists staying in hotels in central Amsterdam pay a higher tax rate than those staying farther away. In Edinburgh councillors are reportedly considering a tourist tax, revenues from which would be spent on rubbish collection or improving infrastructure.
Of course, it’s a terribly odd thing, with much ambivalence, to even suggest something like “I went to Iceland and it was the best, but you shouldn’t go there anymore”. But, it *is* true. At least, after our forest fires here, I’m taking a long hard look at travel, and it feels like plane travel is just straight up REALLY bad. Of course, this isn’t a zero sum situation, and there are trade offs and things you can do to help the situation. What’s more, the perception of what is bad is different than the reality. A good example is that changing your diet, away from red meat, would be a significantly more helpful resolution than cutting out all travel, or insulating your home better to preserve energy (in fact, some governments are now looking at waste energy as a “renewable resource” if we can prevent it from ever being waste in the first place). But, there are examples that would ultimately impact our industry, such as the recommendation for doing more video calls than commute traffic, especially flying. But you can do your best by carpooling, using public transportation, or switching to a bike.
“According to a study from the World Bank, the emissions associated with flying in business class are about three times as great as flying in coach… …When you land at a warm destination, flight attendants might ask you to shut your window shades, said Christine Boucher, a director of global environmental sustainability for Delta Air Lines. The reason? It reduces the amount of fuel used to cool the aircraft when it’s sitting at the gate, she said”.
“Staying home, in fact, is the essence of making a big difference in a big hurry. That’s because nothing that we do pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than air travel. Cancel a couple long flights, and you can halve your carbon footprint. Schedule a couple, and you can double or triple it”.
For now air travel is a relatively small (<5%) contributor to global emissions, even if it is 95% of my own personal emissions. My view is that we should and must prioritize fixing all the things for which reasonable alternatives exist. This is up to and including flying any shorter distance for which a train or bus could work. But there is no other way for me to get to SF on the 23rd of December, so I’m gonna fly. One simplified explanation of my philosophy is that I think we need to save the world for long-distance travel.The good news is that planes can fly on biofuels. They can do it today. They already blend some in. It’s a question of certifying and scaling up production, which could feasibly be done within a decade in Sweden. Will there be enough biomass to fuel global air travel forever? Not sure, but I have hope, especially now that it looks like cars will be electric. There are reasons for optimism.There are also horrible reasons for pessimism, as you point out. If anything I expect the situation in the actual natural world, it’s response to climate change, is worse than is widely understood, and worsening fast. So unfortunately the progress we’re making on energy and transport — real progress — is not keeping up with the response of the earth’s immune system.
No individual consumer’s action has a meaningful impact on actual emissions. None. Not even never flying ever again or selling your sports car. They just don’t. They drown in the marginal new action, which is emitting.Your consumer actions, however, do have a meaningful impact on markets, though. They send a signal about what consumers like you value, and what tomorrow’s markets should look like.Flying less sends a marginal signal about how much you want to fly. Not sure that does a massive amount of good.Selling your sports car sends a very-marginal-indeed signal about how you feel about your sports car. Not a massive thing.Offsetting your flights sends a (positive) marginal signal that people want to do something about the impact of their flights.Buying a different car next time sends a positive, and much more substantial, signal, that low-emitting cars are the market of choice of tomorrow’s wealthy consumer. So does buying a train ticket when that is an alternative to air travel, or an organic avocado when that is an alternative.