Climate change is scary, and that’s probably the main reason people shrug it off as a problem for the future. “Meh,” they say, “I’ll be dead by then.” This rather perverse brand of apathy is particularly callous if you ever plan on having kids (or, you know, care at all about anyone else’s future other than your own), but it could be understandable if it were at all based in fact.
The problem is you won’t be dead by then unless you’re very old or very unlucky. Because climate change is happening now. For those of us living in the US and other developed countries, it’s slightly less alarming because most of the symptoms of human-made climate change aren’t particularly noticeable yet, with the exception of city-drowning superstorms. But for those of us who like to leave our home countries from time to time, there’s a solid chance we’ll be coming face to face with climate change a lot sooner than everyone else. Here’s why.
1. Sea-level rise is washing away your island vacation.
Sea-level rise is usually what people think of when they think of climate change, thanks to Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth. And while the threats of sea-level rise are real and significant, they’re usually posed as a problem that’s at least 100 years off.
But a recent, widely published study found that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing, the effects of which are probably going to be irreversible. The collapse could result in up to 15 total feet of sea-level rise, which would likely happen in the next 200 to 1,000 years. For most of us, that might sound like it could be catastrophic, but we assume it’s not going to be an issue for either us or our kids.
Of course, this thinking is flat-out wrong. Just because the rise it’ll happen slowly doesn’t mean sea-level rise won’t be a problem we’ll face in our lifetime. Just this year, villagers on the Carteret Islands evacuated their homes permanently, becoming the first official “climate refugees.” Their island home is expected to be completely underwater by 2015. The island country of Fiji — of white-sand-beach and tiki-resort fame — is already conducting relocation programs for its own refugees, and both Bangladesh and Kiribati have climate refugees as well. In 2009, the president of the Maldives made headlines by holding a cabinet meeting underwater to draw media attention to the fact that the tallest point on his island nation is only four feet above sea level, and thus his entire country is set to become a modern Atlantis over the coming decades.
With atolls, islands, and entire countries washing into the sea, travelers are already losing potential destinations — you know, in case people losing their homes isn’t reason enough to be alarmed.
2. Climate conflict is going to make some places unvisitable.
If climate change means climate refugees, it’s going to mean destabilization in the countries to which refugees flee. And that means conflict. And it’s already happening. The brutal, ugly conflict in Darfur that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people over the past decade is often branded the world’s first “climate conflict” because of the role chronic drought and advancing deserts have played.
The US Department of Defense is already anticipating the knock-on effects climate change may have in exacerbating conflicts. Wars could break out in India, Pakistan, and China because of water shortages, and “desertification” could cause or amplify conflicts in Northern Africa. Hell, even the US isn’t immune: Last year there was a dispute over water rights between Texas and New Mexico.
As all travelers know, places with a ton of conflict are not ideal places to visit — and if that means vast countries like China and India become off limits, we’d all be poorer for it.
3. Air pollution and deforestation are making a lot of places pretty ugly.
In a more aesthetic sense, climate change is going to ruin the looks of a lot of cool places. Aside from the likelihood of extreme weather destroying landmarks and damaging culturally significant cities, things like pollution, desertification, and deforestation are going to deprive us of what otherwise might’ve been some pretty spectacular views.
A great example is Shanghai. The Pudong skyline is one of the most staggering feats of human engineering in the world. It contains several of the world’s tallest and most spectacular skyscrapers. It’s an incredible view from across the Huangpu River. But nowadays, the skyline is usually only visible behind an ugly haze of air pollution. The same is true of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and the US city of Los Angeles has long been known for its smog.
Deforestation is another good way to make beautiful things ugly. Around 20% of the Amazon rainforest — probably the top natural wonder of the world — has been destroyed in the last 40 years, and Indonesia has been illegally destroying forests even faster. Not only does this worsen climate change, thus contributing to our previous points, but it also kills off a lot of really incredible wildlife, like tigers, orangutans, and jaguars, which are popular among animal-loving tourists.
This means you need to start traveling now.
Basically, if you wanted to see the world in a semi-preserved state, you needed to start traveling decades ago. Now, climate change is only going to make things worse for travelers and, more importantly, for humanity and all life on Earth as a whole. There are two basic things you can do about this as a traveler. First, you can start traveling now to see all of the sights that’ll be disappearing in the next couple centuries (but, please, travel in a way that doesn’t make the problem worse, and try to be a greener traveler).
Second, you can start working to fight climate change. This could mean supporting organizations like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund, or it could mean writing your Representative and urging responsible steps towards addressing climate change.
Some of the effects of our effect on the world’s climate are going to be felt regardless, but we can start working now to preserve a beautiful, travelable world for ourselves and future generations.