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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Summer travel: Is anything changing?

Uploaded: Jun 11, 2019
In the midst of this record-setting early June heat, following one of the wettest Mays on record in the US, I see lots of beautiful photos of friends and acquaintances traveling to interesting, far-flung places for summer vacation. It’s fun to hear about and to see the pictures. But it’s also true that something for me has changed.

Distant summer travel is a long-standing tradition. It’s a great time to visit family and friends, to learn about different places and to try new things. We live in a very international community, and a very wealthy one, so long-distance travel is common. In the past few years, I vacationed with family in both London and Nepal, and my daughter flew to New Zealand to visit a close family friend. I bought offsets, and other than that didn’t really think twice about it, at least climate-wise.

But my perspective has changed, and I would not make those same choices any more. It’s pretty easy for me since I’m not big on travel anyway. But it’s also true that the more I read about global warming and its impact, the more discordant those activities are for me. This discomfort is taking root in some countries, and also among more and more climate scientists. But it takes a lot of time and/or immersion in climate news to get to that point. Changes like these, at planetary scale, are hard to understand and assimilate. Big ships take a while to turn. And people have doubts about whether their personal travel makes any difference. But I expect our travel patterns will change -- the question is when. Do you think change is happening where we live? Are people you know thinking about the climate impact of their summer travel and finding ways to travel less?

For this short blog post, I’d be interested in hearing whether you know of anyone who has modified their summer plans with climate change in mind. Maybe a friend has opted to travel more locally. Or you know of an acquaintance who has decided to visit her family for twice as long, but just every other year. Maybe your workplace has cancelled the annual summer conference in Paris for a series of more local get-togethers. I would love to hear in the comments if you are seeing signs of change. If you are making your own changes, are you talking about it at all, or do you prefer to “mind your own business” and stay quiet, to avoid the perception of preaching? Please share! If nothing is changing, that’s a helpful observation as well.

(Blogger note: A commenter suggested ignoring this last paragraph, and I agree. Please ignore it, and share whatever comments you feel are most relevant.) Note: I expect that some of you will want to weigh in with doubts that our individual actions make a difference, or to assert that traveling less doesn’t make much sense until <something else> happens, or to express frustration with climate hypocrisy. I think those are very important responses, deserving of their own posts with more background. Given the limited context in this post I’d ask you, if at all possible, to try to stay responsive to the main question, namely whether you are noticing your peers making climate-aware choices about summer travel, and whether people are comfortable talking about such changes.

Current Climate Data (April/May 2019)

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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 +   2 people like this
Posted by Tom, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jun 11, 2019 at 3:19 pm

I haven't noticed too much discussion by friends and family about reducing climate impacts through vacation adjustments. It still feels like a taboo area for discussion where folks may be defensive. I think folks are using travel to "reach their potential" or "not miss out" "get what they deserve" etc, and that gets defended. But I try to offer a low carbon fun adventure alternative. You can make a great little bike tour from the Peninsula to San Luis Obispo by riding to the coast and down through Big Sur and catching Amtrak and Caltrain home. I've been doing that route and little variations for years and meet interesting travelers each time and enjoy some world class scenery up close at low speed. The ride is camp-able or motel-able. For $5/night I like the campgrounds at Aptos, Monterey Veterans, Kirk Creek or Pacific Valley, San Simeon or Morro Bay, but there are even more offerings. The summer tail winds help make the trip wind powered. The vacation is so low cost, I have more than enough leftover money to purchase carbon offsets for the rest of my year.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 12, 2019 at 10:30 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Tom -- Thanks for your comment! I agree, I don't hear much about this either, and it is a sensitive area. Are there more local alternatives that are just as appealing as the lovely vacations people are taking? I read that luxury overnight trains are making a comeback in Europe. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, either. I like this article in the Seattle Times, with the point about "Make it count". Can we make "less is more" be true here? And find compelling, local alternatives?


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Karen L, a resident of another community,
on Jun 12, 2019 at 10:35 am

Finally a column I feel qualified to comment on. (Full disclosure I am the column writer's sister.) I'm a travel agent in Minnesota and the consensus among my colleagues in the office is generally concern about the environment does not impact summer travel/vacation travel decisions. What we DO see is increased client awareness of climate-related activity that might impact their individual travel plans such as longer/wetter hurricane seasons in the Caribbean, low/high water levels on European rivers etc... but they don't see their part in causing it. There is also growing interest in the "schadenfreude" variety of "Disappearance Tourism." Travel to see it before it's gone...destinations and wildlife areas threatened by climate change such as the Maldives, Great Barrier Reef, Glacier National Park, Antarctica, Venice etc... are seeing strong demand. Ironic - traveling to see places that may be destroyed by the environmental impact of that very same travel. On a positive note large travel consortia, such as Virtuoso and Signature, and their suppliers are focusing efforts on promoting sustainable travel practices and initiatives for the industry and consumers on their websites and online publications. It's a slow path to change that comes down to columns like this building awareness.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 12, 2019 at 11:38 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Karen!! Thank you for your comment (and for reading)!!

First of all, I hope that people understand that everyone is qualified and encouraged to comment on these posts. If not, then I'm doing something wrong. We all live here on this warming planet, so every one of us is perfectly qualified to think about what is happening and what we can do. Even if it's "I don't care (and here is why)" or "I really don't understand", then that is important, and we should figure it out.

That said, it's also wonderful to have experts weighing in :) Thanks for relating what you are seeing and hearing! I think the best way to turn things around is to have great alternatives, so I love that you are seeing the industry start to think about that. Travel by train is an interesting growth area. Out here on the west coast, a company is experimenting with a "sleeper bus" between SF and LA. It is on hiatus -- they say they are working on making it more comfortable -- but it will be interesting to see how that pans out. Especially if it goes electric. (A sleeper bus is going to have reduced occupancy, so worse emissions per rider, but electric power would help a lot there, especially since these can charge midday.)


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by eileen , a resident of another community,
on Jun 12, 2019 at 8:41 pm

This column has had me thinking a great deal, and feeling much less virtuous. I have extensive travel plans this fall and winter, all by plane and to amazing but very distant destinations. I purchased carbon offsets, but that seems a bit of a cop out. I will not be volunteering in a refugee camp, saving endangered species, or clearing brush to reduce fire danger. I'm sure I will love it as much as I have always loved traveling.
Having written that, I think travel can broaden one's outlook, make one more sympathetic, see our country from others' perspective--always interesting and challenging. We can be very insular otherwise. Travel can be done in an environmentally sensitive way. Staying in one spot for an extended time rather than hopping from one photo op to another works both abroad and in our national parks. Stay put, get to know and love people unlike yourselves and places that you may then continue to support. And we can make a difference. I took a trip to Bhutan where our group visited, helped support and offered direct aid to build rural libraries. We spent a year in Sweden, learned the language, sent our kids to public schools and used public transportation or walked. Many years ago in China we gave university students money to take English proficiency tests in order to get a visa to study in the US. These could only be paid for in US dollars. Had we not been there, we would never have learned about this or been able to help.
Not traveling seems like an unrealistic option for those of us lucky enough to be able to take exciting trips. We just need to be more mindful. As for us, we may be spending more time at home after this winter.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 13, 2019 at 8:05 am

I think the values of travel for broadening the mind is becoming even more prevalent, and the values of international travel even more so. I don't see any of this diminishing from the point of view of climate concerns.

However, saying that, I see more and more people going on mission type trips where they are doing something good for the community they are visiting, rather than just pleasure style trips. I also see more and more study abroad types of programs, exchanges, and gap years becoming more popular than ever. Americans are typically well behind the rest of the world in these types of travel options and I for one think that is good for the country as a whole.

It has been said in so many places that Americans don't have passports to the same extent that other nations. Many say that the country is so big and varied there is no need to leave it for travel reasons. The value of travel to foreign parts is to do with culture, attitudes, and experiences. Having to deal with foreign languages, foreign cultures, foreign currency, as well as seeing different perspectives about things that are taken so much for granted here, is good for the country's image as much as anything else.

The typical "American arrogance" label that many foreigners see in Americans is beginning to be less prevalent due to the fact that so many Americans are now experiencing more ventures into foreign parts. Curtailing that by the next generation will only bring back the prevalence of the arrogant image that other nations have of Americans.

Europeans, Asians, Australasians, all travel worldwide and have no plans to stop doing so for climate or other reasons. Expecting Americans to stop their very limited travel plans will be a step backwards in international goodwill and bonding. Other nationals will continue to visit here, we should be learning from them.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 13, 2019 at 4:23 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@eileen and @Resident -- Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. There is no doubt that travel can be broadening, even life altering. And it can build empathy and bring people together. But how often does it do that? And to what degree? And how would you compare travel to the urban inner city, or to a southern plantation, or to an Indian reservation, or to the Maine or Montana wilderness with these more exotic international destinations?

I would propose that one of the reasons that people travel the way that we do is the industry is set up that way. People travel for a variety of reasons, and the answer is more often Paris, London, Rome, the Caribbean than local. Is that because there are no local options that would be equally fulfilling? Or because we haven't packaged them as such and made them desirable?

Heaven knows we need greater global harmony. And greater national harmony. If that is the travel goal, how best to achieve that? How much travel is needed, vs desired, and to where, to where and at what frequency? Same for other types of travel.

I don't believe clean planes are coming any time soon, other than puddle jumpers. So do we just keep doing what we are doing, because it's what we've always done? Or do we cut back thoughtfully, and use our imaginations to create new types of travel that will surprise and delight people?

@eileen -- I like your comment that "we just need to be more mindful". If you haven't already, check out the Seattle Times article, which I think talks about that in a sensible way.

Great comments!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Leg room, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 15, 2019 at 7:30 pm

Nothing puts a cramp in vacation plans (literally) like lack of leg room. By the time I get where I'm going, I am in tremendous physical pain and aching, like I'm being tortured. I get through it minute to minute.

So, I don't travel that much. I wish I could travel more to see my family.

I figure my vegetarianism and thus my family's and getting mostly locally sourced organic food is enough of an offset. I used to grow my own food mostly but then the drought forced me to let it die and I haven't had the ability to remake it.

Oh, also the solar homes. Lived most of my life in solar homes.

The most important thing we could all do for global warming is to get everyone registered to vote and make sure they vote and keep voting, and don't get talked out of voting by people who try to make it seem like you can get your own personal perfect candidate or it's not worth it, or that one person's vote doesn't count. Because if people believe that, then no one votes, and they lose. People swept Obama in and then acted like it didn't matter that they didn't have his back in the midterms. If they had, we'd have universal healthcare for half what we pay now like the rest of the first world.

Young people - the problem is they're in college, and it's often not really clear where they vote and where they are residents. Is there a national organization that can start outreach now on college campuses, through social media? Educate young voters, help them, easily, figure out how to vote as soon as they get to their respective college campuses. I thought I was reasonably smart, and trudged through the snow to vote for my favorite primary candidate. I did not understand that there were lots of downballot races, for some reason the local registrar did not send the info to college students. I sat there trying to figure out whether I could just vote for the races I knew and not invalidate my ballot. At that age, I also had no inkling of how important the local and state races were to my life and future, especially since I had moved there from another state.

I think making a much more concerted effort with young people would help. Another is to get African Americans to realize that if everyone voted at the same rate as when Obama was elected, all the time, it would change everything. Again, looking at the big picture, not every candidate or party can be the be all and end all. But they can support things like not destroying the planet and providing better educational and other opportunities to the bottom 99% again.

Take a plane and go register ex-convicts in Florida, who newly got the right to vote. You will do more for the future of the planet than any offsets you buy.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 16, 2019 at 12:14 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@LegRoom -- Yes!! Voting is so important. Informed voting, even better. Not entirely sure how to get there. Wish more young musicians and actors and athletes were speaking up about climate. Where is the Bono for Gen Z?

I like your idea about focusing on kids (their future is most impacted) and the messages that every vote matters and no candidate is perfect, choose your top priorities. One of which imo should be climate :)

Impressed about the lifelong solar living. Not even my kid will be able to say that…


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Leg Room, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 16, 2019 at 7:35 pm

@Sherry,
Join the League of Women Voters. It's volunteer-led. If you were to spearhead an effort to study and thus move to help smooth the way for college voters, you could surely get the organizational support.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Petra, a resident of another community,
on Jun 17, 2019 at 8:30 am

@legroom
I also suggest the League of Women Voters for local nonpartisan efforts to increase registered voters and voter education. They do presentations at high schools and try to get 16 and 17 year olds to preregister. There are loads of partisan organizations doing the work as well. I recommend Sister District because they work on down ballot candidates and do lots of GOTV (get out the vote). Also, Santa Clara County is adopting a new way of voting under the Voter's Choice Act for 2020. It will enable people to register to vote and vote at the same time. Although traditional polling places will no longer exist there will be Vote Centers which will all be open a minimum of four days including election day. So students (and anyone else) who have not re-registered at their new address will be able to re-register or register for the first time and vote at the same time! This is a fantastic opportunity to increase voter participation. There are 11 counties in California that have adopted the system. If you want to make sure that the elections office has Vote Centers on college campuses, they are right now working on locating for Vote Centers and I encourage you to get involved by contacting the Santa Clara elections division and submitting comments!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Irish Heroine, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Jun 17, 2019 at 8:54 am

If young people want to do something for the environment, they would do well to take notice of a young Irish girl, Flossie Donnelly, who at 11 has been organizing beach clean ups in her town for many years. She has been noticed by her community and her country. She has started Flossie and the Beach Cleaners and is out there at weekends cleaning up. She doesn't fly around Europe making speeches. She doesn't tell people to leave their classrooms to protest. She just gets people motivated to actually do something. Here's an article about her and if you google her name you will find more. Web Link I wish we had a Flossie Donnelly around here.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by MVresident2003, a resident of Mountain View,
on Jun 17, 2019 at 1:01 pm

MVresident2003 is a registered user.

I know that you requested not to argue the general aspects of whether climate change is real or not however I would argue that it's disengenuous to have this conversation without allowing alternative point of view. @Karen mentioned shadenfreude travel to destinations with the imminent threat that these places will be gone and she specifically mentioned Glacier National Park.

Very interesting as Glacier National just removed the signs placed during the Obama administration claiming that the glaciers will be gone by 2020;
Web Link

I would post a link to a less partisan source however for some strange reason, non of the “non partisan" “news" sources have reported on this?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 17, 2019 at 1:24 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Irish -- That is a great pointer, thanks! I wonder how a kid would go about taking direct action on greenhouse gas emissions as opposed to trash. Emissions are like trash, but invisible and on a much larger scale. I think it's harder, which is probably why they go about lobbying politicians and giving speeches. They want to see changes in policy. FWIW, I think it takes both. People make their own changes by taking individual action (and ideally encouraging others to do so), and people ask (vote) for changes at a policy level.

@MVresident2003 -- Yeah, I think you are right. It definitely wasn't my intent to suppress the alternative point of view. I was just hoping to avoid the well-worn "It doesn't make a difference what I do" (more often said by someone who believes in global warming than who doesn't), or the well-worn "All these so-called environmentalists travel all the time, that is so hypocritical". But they are well-worn for a good reason. So, I shouldn't have included the caveat. It sounds like you may be neither of those, and are happy to travel because you just don't believe in global warming. I don't hear that much, so it would be great if you would weigh in. Thanks again for the comment.

On the removal of glacier disappearance signs, I'm pretty sure no scientists would argue that they are always right. Or, just as important, that people never misrepresent what they say. For example, scientists are often explicit about the degree of certainty of their findings, but that might be dropped when it is repeated for the sake of simplicity... Here is a great case where scientists really flubbed it, and owned up. That is how science works. If people at the Park are being secretive about changing the date the glaciers will disappear, that seems silly. I can also understand, though, that a sign that is accurate may be harder to read: "With 90% probability, 85% of these glaciers will be gone by 2040, and 95% by 2050." (I made that up!) There is sometimes a tussle between simplicity and accuracy, and it is definitely the case that environmentalists (and everyone else) are often guilty of going for simplicity to make a point. Communication is not easy.

At at the end of the day, the fundamental science on global warming hasn't changed for 60 years or something like that. The Earth is warming very rapidly, and it is due to the rapid rise in greenhouse gases. There is pretty much no way around that. That is why mainstream news organizations are moving on from "Is climate change happening, and are we causing it" discussions to what to do about it.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Reality, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Jun 19, 2019 at 11:08 am

Are local peers making climate conscious decisions about summer travel?

My gosh, no! In fact, every year the vacation plans I hear from other locals get more exotic and further away.

While climate change discussions are totally mainstream, changing travel plans as a result are far from it. In fact, the "must see" bucket list keeps growing every year and hitting those spots is the way locals communicate their status.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jun 19, 2019 at 2:04 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I just got an email from the NY Times climate newsletter that points to a related Swedish study. It talks about "climate compensation", when everyday green choices are used to mentally justify large negative actions. One of the co-authors "pointed out that flying halfway around the world on vacation has a huge impact on climate no matter how many bike trips or meatless Mondays you do. 'When people try to act in environmentally friendly ways, they often, in fact, do further harm to the environment,' wrote Dr. Sorqvist, research director of environmental psychology at the University of Gavle in Sweden, referring to climate compensation. 'In the economically healthy part of the world, it is quite common,' he noted."

It doesn't make sense to expect people to become emission-free overnight. But I do hope that people begin to see a path to a future where they do less high-emission travel.



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