What is Climate Change and How Does It Affect Travel? 

Climate change often feels like an overwhelming and complex matter. However, at its most basic, climate change is a phenomenon characterized by the shift in global temperatures over a period of time. Its primary cause is increased atmospheric concentrations of gases like carbon dioxide and other pollutants, causing a “greenhouse effect” that traps more of the sun’s energy in the atmosphere. Oftentimes, understanding the science of climate change can be a gateway to understanding its impacts on travel.

What is the Greenhouse Effect? 

The Greenhouse Effect is the process by which certain gases, such as water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and ozone, trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, potentially raising global temperatures. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), these gases absorb part of the infrared energy that is radiated back to space. With the gases in their current levels, there is enough of a “blanket” to keep Earth’s temperature at an average that supports life—around 59 degrees Fahrenheit or 15 degrees Celsius.

The Science Behind Human-Made Climate Change 

Human activities are increasing the levels of the Greenhouse Effect gases (GEG) in the atmosphere. Global warming and climate change are driven, in large part, by emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). When we burn gasoline for our cars, diesel for our trucks and buses, coal for our electricity, and natural gas to heat our homes, we release large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from 1990 to 2018, U.S. emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and certain industrial processes increased by 13%, up to 6,677.4 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that each individual country’s contribution to global warming varies in terms of its impact. For example, developed countries (including the United States) account for nearly 60 percent of the world’s total Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions even though they comprise only 16 percent of the world’s population. Despite having just four percent of the world’s population, the United States is the second largest emitter of CO2.

The Effects of Climate Change 

The effects of climate change are far-reaching and continue to worsen over time. In many cases, climate change is intensifying extreme weather events. For example, temperatures both in a local region and across the world can become more extreme, such as very hot summers and very cold winters. In addition, sea levels are rising, and rainfall patterns are changing.

While we are just beginning to understand the far-reaching impacts of climate change, the travel and tourism industry is one of the sectors already feeling the effects. For one, the industry’s carbon footprint—including that of air and ground travel, hotel operations, leisure activity and the production of food and other services associated with the accomodations—is actually growing, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

Impact of Climate Change on Travel 

Rising temperatures, accelerating sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and extreme weather events are just some of the ways climate change is affecting travel. Here are some of the impacts climate change is having on the travel industry:

  1. Air Travel Disruption: Climate change is causing an increase in disruptive weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons, which can delay or even cancel flights. According to the Oxford Economics Global Risk Model, the cost of flight disruptions is estimated to increase from $12.4 billion in 2018 to $18.4 billion in 2028.

  2. Inadequate Infrastructure: Climate change is causing severe weather events, such as flooding, extreme heat, and drought. This is leading to infrastructure damage and insufficient resources as well as road closures due to mudslides or heavy flooding, potentially making some areas less accessible.

  3. The Creation of Climate Refugees: Climate change is displacing people all around the world to varying degrees. For example, rising sea levels are forcing people to flee coastal communities and low-lying islands due to their reduced habitability.

  4. Decreased Quality of Tourism Destinations: Climate change is causing a decrease in air quality, ocean currents, and marine life in areas popular for tourism. In 2008, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimated that nearly 300 tourist destinations have been negatively affected due to climate change.

  5. The Loss of Local Cuisine: Climate change is impacting the supply and quality of produce, resulting in the loss of native plants and the displacement of more delicate species. This is causing a shift in traditional flavors and ingredients that make up a region’s cuisine, potentially impacting a large part of the tourism experience.

Climate change is an increasingly urgent issue. Understanding the science behind it and its impacts is essential to tackling it in the near and long-term future. The travel industry is just one of the many sectors feeling the effects of climate change, and it is just as important to recognize these effects as it is to develop strategies to mitigate and adapt. By understanding the underlying science of climate change and its impacts on the travel industry, it’s possible to develop more meaningful and effective solutions for the future.