Hurricanes – Waking up to climate change

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“Hurricanes are perhaps the ultimate call to action. We could make a huge difference to the devastation of hurricanes and other climate change-related phenomena, by tackling the cause as well as the symptoms. We need to act fast, though; fast, together and above all, NOW.”

We get a giant reminder of how important sustainable travel is when the weather gets in the way. With ten hurricanes, six classified as ‘major’, 2017 has been a record-breaking year in the hurricane season – and it’s not even over. Amongst the major ones (category 3 or above) Harvey, Irma and Maria have famously made landfall with devastating effects in the Caribbean and North America, while Ophelia was more damaging in the UK and Ireland than any hurricane since 1987.

Not surprisingly, the travel industry is amongst the casualties in hurricane-affected regions. For the regions concerned, this causes an entirely unhelpful double-whammy, as the initial disaster is followed by loss of income from tourists and other visitors. For travellers, it can mean severe disruption to holiday and travel plans or, worse, considerable risk if in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it’s bad news for the travel industry, too, particularly for companies who have hotels, or who specialise in tours or cruises, in hard hit areas like British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or Cuba. We don’t yet know the cost of this season’s hurricanes in terms of cancellations, damage to buildings and boats, and so on; but it is likely to be high, and this is all another wake up call for us to turn to sustainable, responsible travel.

If hurricanes are a symptom, what’s the cause? Hurricanes are a normal phenomenon but the links between their increasing frequency and severity, and climate change, are all too clear. Warmer air holds more moisture which can be taken up by storms, increasing their power and leading to extreme rainfall events. Warmer oceans also increase the power of storms through the evaporation of hot seawater – the ocean ‘sweating’ to get rid of excess heat on the tropical ocean surface. Combine this with local sea level rises – at Galveston, Texas, sea level has risen by about a foot over the last 50 years, for example – and you get a wicked combination of extreme rain and wind, storm surges and backed up, flooding rivers. Overall, the relationship between climate change and storms has been compared to turning up the heat under a saucepan of water. More energy in the system: bigger, faster and more powerful bubbles.

There is a deep unfairness involved here too. Having learned from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, there has been a much more effective response in Florida and Texas this time round. But not so in Puerto Rico. And there has been pitiful support and little news coverage in countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines who receive the worst impacts of climate change but who, with very low greenhouse gas emissions, have contributed little to causing it. On the other hand, the USA, the UK and other ‘Western’ countries have amongst the highest GHG emissions per person and per country in the world. And here’s where things need to change, and where they can change; the optimism amongst the wreckage.

To be clear: it will get worse before it gets better. The predictions are for more, and more ferocious hurricanes; and a host of other climate change impacts that can affect travel and travellers as much as anyone else – impacts on food supplies, water and security, for example, as the numbers of climate change refugees increase around the world. BUT equally, there is much we can do and, while many analysists now fear that the ‘no more than 2 degrees rise in average global temperature’ goal agreed at the 2015 Paris climate change convention may be fast slipping out of reach, we can still make the impacts of climate change, including hurricanes, considerably less bad by rapidly and significantly reducing climate change emissions across the world.

For the travel industry, this means a host of actions, going far beyond eco tourism and the ‘do you need a clean towel every day’ campaign to a comprehensive evaluation of current greenhouse gas emissions in relation to buildings and infrastructure, transport, food, other aspects of the supply chain, and so on; and an effective, systematic – and implemented – strategy for drastic greenhouse gas reduction. The unavoidable remaining emissions can be offset in various ways; ideally win/win ones, such as support for tree-planting projects that enhance biodiversity as well as reduce climate change emissions, or projects that provide clean, low-carbon cooking stoves in developing countries.

Like hurricane response operations, implementing these cause-tackling strategies will often involve new partnerships and unlikely collaborations. It can bring significant benefits in terms of financial savings, too, and, if used cleverly as part of a marketing strategy, kudos and support from the growing sector of travellers who care about climate change and who are on the lookout for genuinely sustainable travel options. Moreover, the travel industry has huge potential in terms of raising awareness of climate change amongst those of its clients not yet on board; clarifying the links between travel, climate change, its impacts and what can be done.

For travellers committed to responsible travel and sustainable tourism, reducing greenhouse gas emissions can mean a serious commitment to flying less and using less carbon-expensive forms of transport more, finding and using travel operators with a serious and certified commitment to sustainability, staycations, eating less meat, buying fewer but perhaps better quality pre-holiday items, etc; in short thinking seriously about personal carbon footprints and how to reduce them. Key is doing this visibly, and in a celebratory, rather than sacrificial way. This is about living and travelling in a lighter, wiser, smarter, more sustainable way – not about giving stuff up or having less fun or fewer meaningful experiences. On the contrary, it adds meaning, as every bit less carbon in the atmosphere is a potential reduction in disasters just around the corner.

Hurricanes are perhaps the ultimate call to action. We could make a huge difference to the devastation of hurricanes and other climate change-related phenomena, by tackling the cause as well as the symptoms. We need to act fast, though; fast, together and above all, NOW.

Do you care about sustainability? Please leave a reply here or on NOW Forum.