The problem with the climate change problem

By Jeremy Sampson, CEO, The Travel Foundation

We all know that climate change is happening, the evidence is all around us and increasing every year.  We also know what needs to happen in the face of this threat: reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, plan for the changes to our climate that are already underway.  So why is it so hard for us to think past the short term and make these adjustments? And how do we get people engaged in solving this issue?  

For tourism, it’s clear that our sector is particularly vulnerable, relying as it does on carbon-intensive transport and fragile environments such as coastal and mountain resorts, as well as people’s nearly insatiable desire and ability to travel. This means that taking action on this issue grows ever more important, yet making the necessary adaptations and managing related risks are far from easy. The topic is fraught with politics, funding issues and gaps in knowledge and skills.  Add to this the paralysing emotions of fear and guilt most usually associated with doomsday climate predictions and the related ‘apocalypse fatigue’, it’s no wonder that many destinations are struggling to make a start or are turning their backs on the problem. 

But dig a little deeper, as we have done at The Travel Foundation through our growing portfolio of initiatives focused on accelerating climate action across our sector, and you’ll find a huge amount of vision, creativity and drive for meaningful solutions.

Last month, I was asked to lead a round table about climate action in tourism at the City Nature Place Americas Conference in New Orleans.  The event was billed as a chance to discuss practical steps towards Net Zero and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the sign-up list was sparse just minutes before we kicked off. But with a little cajoling and an assist from the fantastic CNP team, a good number of folks joined and we ended up having a very dynamic, thought-provoking discussion for longer than any other table. That initial reluctance to take part in the debate about climate action was soon replaced by a real engagement in the issues and a zeal to find answers.  Roundtable participant Beth Wright, who has been working with the Travel Foundation team on a recent project in British Columbia, said, “When faced with tackling the climate crisis, there is often reluctance at the onset, a kind of overwhelm fatigue. But once people come together and start to peel back the layers, identifying specific climate impacts in their communities, what efforts are already occurring and what motivates specific stakeholders to act, there is a wellspring of ideas and inspiration.”

A hesitancy to openly consider and debate the solutions that might futureproof our industry is understandable when you consider the barriers that destinations face when it comes to climate action.  Recent research undertaken by the Travel Foundation and Leeds Beckett University School of Events, Hospitality and Tourism Management investigated the practical support needed by destination management organisations (DMOs) for climate action and found that there is a lack of climate literacy, technical knowledge and understanding of the priorities, as well as complexities around the number of stakeholders involved, confusion over a destination’s mandate and sphere of influence and more.  The enablers for climate action that emerged included climate literacy training, having a clear mandate for climate action planning, plus resources such as standardised measures and indicators, example action plans and measurement tools.  Participants also emphasised the importance of strong partnerships and collaborations, a theme that was highlighted more broadly as one of the top five takeaways from the whole CNP Americas event as a way to evolve strategy and prepare for the challenges and opportunities ahead.  

In order to bridge the skills and knowledge gap identified in this research, the Travel Foundation is launching an on-line course on climate action for DMOs with Expedia Group later this year.  The course aims to give DMO staff practical knowledge and tools, setting out the fundamental building blocks of climate change, its relationship to tourism, what we can do about it and how to market and manage climate friendly destinations. The course utilises a “Climate Champions” model, which will enable participants to develop a Glasgow Declaration-aligned Climate Action Plan before learning how to support and engage businesses, media, and other key community partners with their own climate action work.

For many starting out on their climate action journey, the complexity of the issue and the combination of jargon and technical vernacular you’re likely to come across can be a sticking point - confusing terms such as ‘Net Zero’ or ‘Nature-based Solutions’, for example.  Sometimes, better results can be achieved by reframing the debate and communicating climate action through another lens. For example, the Oregon Coast Visitor Association’s  (OCVA), found that, by using the language of resilience, they were more able to engage their stakeholders.  Patty Martin, OCVA’s climate consultant and the Travel Foundation’s newly appointed climate scientist said that this approach “allows us to depoliticize something that is very much a political talking point, not everyone wants to be viewed as taking part in climate action, but they are more open to talking about how to make their business, their family, their community more resilient. For instance, not everyone agrees with mitigation actions such as reducing transportation emissions. However, everyone on the Oregon Coast knows the mental pain of being stuck in traffic because of the high volume of cars on the road. People are willing to discuss this issue and solutions for it because they understand and experience it. It is not political, and they want it to go away.”

Focusing on the most impactful actions with the resources you have can also be helpful if you’re struggling to know where to start with climate action.  Some DMOs are using a prioritisation scheme developed by Martin, which is based on the speed the action can be implemented, the emission reduction potential and the reach across stakeholders. Another approach is to kick-start action by focusing on simple, ‘first mile’ behaviour change actions, like those championed by our partners at BehaviourSmart, who we commonly work with on destination climate initiatives.  This might include nudging visitor’s behaviour away from more carbon-intensive options.  For example, Norway launched a national effort to cut food waste including using smaller plate sizes in hotels.

Talking about this issue and its relevance to tourism with our colleagues and friends, sharing successes and opportunities is also vital if we are to engage others in climate action. That peer-to-peer communication will be essential in finding solutions and in showing that talking about this issue is possible and productive, creating momentum for change within our sector.  At first, speaking out publicly can seem daunting, I certainly felt uneasy about doing so when I first started working on this issue.  There is a fear of getting it wrong, feeling like a fraud because I don’t know all the answers, or concern about what stakeholders will think, but the response I’ve received when I speak on this issue has been reassuring and rewarding.  Today, communication about climate change is one of the focus points of the Travel Foundation’s strategy. Later this year, we are involved in two events, the Power of Partnership Stewardship Summit, in Richmond USA this October, which aims to foster innovation and partnership for an inclusive future for tourism, and a soon-to-be-announced Climate Leadership Conference in the Netherlands, which will share ideas, solutions and best practice. 

We are also using strategic research to set out the way forward, such as our recent report, Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond, which illustrates that a successful future for tourism is possible, and describes how destinations, their residents, businesses and communities can all thrive in our changing world.  We need now to grasp that future with both hands.  That means all of us making changes, and part of that transformation will include telling new stories of how those changes are benefitting our communities, of the innovations that support tourism businesses and of the benefits for tourism destinations that think about the opportunities alongside the risks.  So next time you have a chance to join a climate-focused discussion, take that opportunity - you’ll find yourself both reassured and amazed about where that conversation takes you.

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