So this is how it begins. I was three years old in the UK’s last long hot summer. Too young to remember it directly, instead the parched earth photographs define what I have always erroneously imagined not just that year, but all the summers of the Seventies looked like. This summer therefore has been the first scorcher that I have experienced in real time.
In the early years of this Millenium I interviewed the then London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and I asked him what it would take to get the world to wake up to the threats of climate change. With the terrorist attacks of 9/11 still fresh in everyone’s minds, he told us that it would take an equivalent environmental catastrophe. At the time I agreed, but in the years that followed we witnessed the footage of Katrina, Sandy and countless other hurricanes and tropical storms, along with floods and Fukushima, right up until last summer, and the terrible damage wreaked on the Caribbean by Irma and Maria.
Nothing really changed. A cataclysm that happens ‘over there’ is a news cycle. But this summer is different. Different because its exceptional weather has been made unexceptional. We wake up and it is hot. Everywhere. Every day. The deaths will be far greater than from most of the named disasters. The effect on crops and infrastructure more pronounced.
This is how I imagine it begins. Maybe not this summer. But one year soon, one year that starts with a similarly glorious summer – once again filled with Pimms and picnics – but where bit by bit people stop waking up to celebrate the sunshine, and start wishing it would end.
But it doesn’t end. It stays warmer (just as it actually already has). Feedback loops kick in. And slowly it dawns on us all that climate change – so long an abstract conversation about a possible future – is actually an urgent crisis meeting about how to navigate the now. The best analogy I know for this moment is from the climate scientist Michael Mann, who explains that the common metaphor used of a going over a cliff edge is incorrect. When you hit the cliff edge it is too late – no amount of Wile-e-Coyote style backpedalling will get you back onto the safety of the land. The trouble with the cliff edge metaphor is that it induces inaction – either we haven’t hit the cliff edge yet, so we can delay, slow down or deny its existence. Or we have gone over – so it’s too late.
The correct metaphor, counters Mann, is the minefield. We have been walking in the minefield for many years. Somehow we have survived so far. Maybe a few small explosions, but not enough to kill us. But with a minefield, however difficult it might seem – the best course of action is not to push on into the unknown, but to turn back and pick your way carefully out.
This applies to everyone, of course, whether we work in the tourist industry or not. But for those of us whose business is hugely driven by people seeking warmer climates in summer, these last two months have given us a good long look at what comes next. Not just the urgent, sudden catastrophes in Greece and Lombok – but rather the temperatures of over 51 degrees in North Africa; the Mediterranean becoming somewhere to escape from, not to; and the underlying fact that as an industry we are responsible for somewhere around 8% or more of the climate-altering pollution that is making matters so much worse. If all the tourists in the world were from one country, then only the USA and China would be causing more damage than us. We’re quick to blame those two giant nations for their environmental impact. We aren’t far behind.
So where do we begin? We could start by rethinking the issue that most of our industry seems to consider to be the biggest one we currently face – overtourism. Currently all the discussion is about the merits of promoting secondary destinations vs tourist taxes or other forms of limitation. Unwilling and unable to confront the real problems, we disingenuously frame the issue as ‘managing success’. We’re reacting to localised weather events rather than looking at the climate itself.
These current squabbles will soon seem insignificant. When the temperature goes up a few degrees – as it is, and as it will again and again with increasing regularity – these deckchair-shuffling diagnoses will be made instantly redundant. Right now we are trying to work out how to get a few thousand tourists into a few over-marketed medieval squares. What will we do when many hundreds of millions are seeking out the few places on earth cool enough to enjoy the summer in?