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Global Warming and the Traveler's World

Just to let you know: I’m filing this article from Concourse B at O’Hare International Airport. I’m en route to Memphis to give a talk about global warming, which is a deeply ironic idea, like a dentist handing out lollipops to his young patients.

The bad news first, then. When we travel, we contribute to climate change. The carbon dioxide coming from the backs of our cars or our boats —or especially our planes—plays a substantial role in raising the earth’s temperature. In fact, it’s not too much to say that we’re putting at risk the very sights we’re traveling to see: the atoll where we relax on the beach is so threatened by rising seas that some island nations are preparing evacuation plans. The ski slopes in the Rockies and Alps are endangered by shorter winters and shrinking snowpacks—the same forces that will soon rob Glacier National Park of its remaining ice and melt the legendary snows of Kilimanjaro, revealing its less legendary rocks. As for the autumn foliage in the hills of New England, computer models show that if global warming continues on its projected course, sugar maples will begin to disappear from all regions south of the Canadian border by midcentury. At about the same time, if sea temperatures keep rising, the die-off of the world’s coral reefs will be complete. Those hot waters are also fueling the hurricanes knocking coastal resorts out of commission—and devastating entire cities. Meanwhile, the warmer seasons are drawing malaria-carrying mosquitoes into regions where they’ve never gone before.

And yet—and yet, we want to travel. We want to see the world, meet new people, learn about other cultures, widen our perspective; one of the sweetest gifts fossil fuel has given us is the sense of a larger world filled with beauty and diversity. There’s something more than a little sad about making it smaller again. We have already proved that we have the will and the power to protect nature under siege. Farmers, ranchers, second-home owners, foresters, investors, even developers make up the backbone of many of our country’s land trusts and nature conservancies, protecting millions of acres from unwise development; duck hunters have helped preserve hundreds of thousands of acres where waterfowl breed. Bird-watchers have turned flyway towns into sanctuaries where every resident knows that protecting the annual migration route means protecting their own livelihood. Now we must expend a far greater effort to figure out how to change a situation that has just as much destructive potential as an asteroid appearing from deep space: the worldwide reliance on fossil fuels.

There’s good news in the realm of travel, if not yet enough. Planes, for instance, have become more efficient over the past 40 years—but nowhere near as quickly as air traffic has grown. As the Economist has pointed out, a new Airbus 380 will use the equivalent of 3,500 passenger cars’ worth of power—as if each passenger were driving six cars across the Atlantic. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2006 edition of the Transportation Energy Data Book, air travel by Americans (three fourths of it for pleasure) accounts for a little more than 12 percent of the country’s carbon output, and since it is emitting CO2 at high altitudes and adding other potentially heat-trapping chemicals, including nitrous oxide, the resulting brew could be two to four times worse for the climate than a similar dose coming from the tailpipe of a car.

How can those of us who love to explore the world participate in the effort to turn back climate change?Most of the ways we waste carbon are embedded in our economy; it’s hard to quickly double the insulation in every household, industrial plant, and office building in the world. But we can open up our definition of "leisure travel" to include carrying lighter loads of carbon. I had one of the best vacations ever a few years ago, when I just started walking out my back door in Vermont, traipsing 10 miles a day from one friend’s house to the next until, three weeks later, I’d covered my entire region. I learned more about where I live in those weeks of walking than in the five years I’d spent driving through it.

When we do travel farther, we can find out whether the companies that take us where we want to go are devising ways to limit their impact as well. Virgin Atlantic Chairman Richard Branson recently received a round of major publicity when he proposed a series of solutions to air travel’s contributions to global warming. What generated the most attention (and skepticism) was his idea to tow planes (with their jet engines off) between gates and runways, thereby addressing the fact that jets burn way more fuel on takeoff and landing than they do in the air. The company claims that if all the world’s airlines signed on to its plan—which also includes starting a plane’s descent earlier, to allow a steadier, more efficient speed, and reducing the weight of planes by using lighter materials inside and out—air travel-based carbon emissions could be cut by 25 percent, or 150 million tons a year. (For more on airline-industry efforts to curb climate change, see "What’s Up in the Air?"). In the meantime, we can always take trains when possible, and for that matter, rally local public officials to follow the example of Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Orlando, and a growing number of California cities, and use old railbeds for new public transit systems. Mark Ellingham, founder of the best-selling Rough Guides, recently announced that he is going to travel by train whenever possible and that all his guidebooks will come with a section on global warming.

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