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Climate tourism

Updated Friday, 3rd October 2008

Are the climate tourists contributing to climate change?

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Hello Joe,

Great to hear from you, and wonderful to hear about the Lutheran service there.

Regarding climate tourism, that’s an interesting question. Let me relate two stories that I happen to have seen just in the past two days. I wasn’t looking for them, Joe, on account of your question.

First was a story from University of Alaska Anchorage (where I used to teach) about two advanced students who just came back from western Greenland, where they studied the effects on the soil from warming, the melting ice sheet, and the local musk ox population. They went to Greenland, not to another part of Alaska, to study this. Of course, other students and faculty are studying changes closer to home, but I suspect the story says something about Greenland’s attraction in this regard.

Second was a story from February 2008 in Alaska Magazine about Governor Sarah Palin. The writer tells of a quick visit by the British consul from San Francisco, in port as part of a popular passenger cruise along the southeast coast.

“The consul, after several minutes of chitchat, reminds Palin that something must be done about global warming.”

Bear in mind that Alaska’s Governor is not convinced that there is a strong link between climate change and carbon dioxide emissions.

“Palin listens intently and responds with patience that, according to many in the Capitol, is refreshing.”

It’s anecdotal of course, and let me get back to these two stories in just a second. The short answer is that climate tourism is largely a ship-bound phenomenon: cruising past the glaciers off Greenland, or through the Northeast Passage off Russia’s arctic coast. Tourism in the Arctic has increased overall by almost 50% in the last two decades, and some part of that is definitely driven by the attention it is getting as the hotspot of climate change. But most of those who travel to see arctic Canada, or to visit Yupik Eskimo communities or other villages in rural Alaska, fly to their destination. The vast majority of such tourists go there primarily for other reasons (although climate change is now often in the mix), and they rarely take a ship for part of their journey.

That arrangement makes a difference. You do have scientists, journalists, foreign dignitaries, and government officials flying into villages like Shishmaref (on Alaska’s northwest coast) to see the rapid shoreline erosion and melting tundra, and to talk to the longtime residents about the effects. But as a new phenomenon, they consist of smaller groups. They are not as visible, and not as regular as they are in Greenland, and that makes climate tourism more difficult to brand as such in Alaska and Canada.

Maybe that irregularity is just as well, given the effects of jet exhaust in the stratosphere. For those who do choose to jet to/from their destination or ‘helicopter in’ (as they say), I have no doubt that it makes a positive difference in the form, for example, of research and discussion and getting other students interested in the science, or patiently bending the ear of a policy-maker on still another occasion. The effect of these things takes time.





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