In the discussion about climate change and travel, the focus generally turns to advice about traveling sustainably as an individual. We say that we’ll take the train instead of flying, we’ll purchase carbon offsets if we do have to fly, we’ll do careful research on animal sanctuaries we visit, we’ll bring reusable straws and utensils and water bottles everywhere we go, we plan to visit vegan-friendly cities so that all of our meals out will have a low environmental impact. Ecotourism has become a major buzzword, with resorts and small boutique hotels alike promising visitors that their carbon output and water usage is lower than a regular hotel in the area. We spend so much time focusing on how we can change (and it’s great that we do), but there’s another question we need to consider: how is climate change itself going to change the travel industry?
It’s a loaded question, because the truth is that many of us don’t want to think about it. Subconsciously, we might notice that some of our favorite beach destinations seem to be struggling these days, especially during hurricane and typhoon season. But openly acknowledging it means facing the painful reality that our world is already changing, and that it’s going to look even more different in the coming decades, rendering some of these destinations uninhabitable—no matter how many plastic straws we refuse at the tiki bar.
More extreme weather patterns are already making it more difficult to fly on schedule—and in the future, some airports may have trouble operating at all. Currently, 13 major American airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of current sea levels, and while this may seem like it’s not a big deal, many more airports also have some infrastructure underground. As massive storms become more common (to the point where scientists are considering adding a Category 6 designation for exceptionally powerful hurricanes), delays and cancelled flights are going to become more common, too.
But it’s not just the flooding that can cause a problem. Blizzards can also keep flights grounded in regions where wintertime temperatures are dropping. Yes, some airports in northern locations are already equipped to deal with snow—but in some of these locations, winters are getting warmer, and they’re not prepared to deal with rain and slush. It’s a lose-lose situation.
But most of the world is getting hotter, right? Doesn’t warm, sunny weather mean it will be easier to fly to hotter destinations? Unfortunately, not quite. In cities like Phoenix, extreme heat waves have actually kept flights from taking off, and the resulting lightning storms can interfere with operations, too.
There’s no doubt that plenty of planes will continue taking off for years to come—however, if the price of fuel skyrockets, the days of cheap air travel will be on their way out. Furthermore, many popular destinations are already marred by climate change. For example, many people are aware of massive glaciers melting in places like Iceland, Greenland, Chile, and Argentina, wildfires in California, Greece, Portugal, and even Canada, and the life threatening floods that have recently occurred in coastal American cities.
But it’s not just the physical effects of climate change that could change some regions for the foreseeable future—climate change can also drive political instability.
The ongoing conflict in Syria was not directly attributed to climate change, but rising temperatures and the resulting drought certainly played a major role. Food shortages forced people to relocate quickly within the country, and the changing demographics in major cities and sudden influx of people contributed to the instability the country was already experiencing. As more countries find their agricultural systems and water supplies threatened, violent conflict could increase. Syria’s natural beauty is overwhelming, and the incredible ancient temples, mosques, and historical monuments found there have enthralled locals and visitors alike for years, but the current conflict means that for many people, even living in their cities and villages is impossible, let alone going on vacation.
And unfortunately, there are no easy fixes to these problems. It’s going to take massive, worldwide efforts if we want to curb carbon emissions and stabilize the earth’s average temperature. In the meantime, what’s the best thing we can do? Continue to keep sustainability in mind while traveling. Donate to organizations fighting climate change, vote for politicians who want to cut emissions and support renewables, and help with restoration efforts after natural disasters if possible. Appreciate the natural beauty of our planet, and let’s all work to preserve it for future generations. We may have to accept that some places will never be the same—but we can’t give up the fight.
How do you think travel will change in the coming years?