According to this poll, almost 70 percent of Americans said they would not pay as little as $10 a month to reduce rising temperatures. Americans are unwilling to pay to address climate change now, even as costs rise considerably the longer we postpone doing so.
How a firsthand look teaches us about climate change
My last book, “Tales of an Ecotourist,” tackles this challenge by focusing expressly on how the public accesses information. Exploring five amazing global destinations, it highlights key characteristics of climate change that Americans too often misunderstand — from the scientific and economic, to the social, cultural and political. The work builds on arguments of 18th century French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and 20th century American educator John Dewey to trumpet the power of travel.
This approach is all the more relevant in today’s increasingly polarized political climate. Thoughtful travel helps citizens identify their common interests, strengthening our democratic society by highlighting what we all hold dear — regardless of political preferences.
Three U.S. destinations not to miss
So the chance to see changes unfolding within our own country helps make climate change more “sticky,” as Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell would assert. Such firsthand experiences may transform climate change policies into infectious ideas, becoming more tangible, more personal — and more relevant. Here are a few suggestions:
1. St. Augustine, Fla. — The Sunshine State claims the nation’s oldest city (technically it’s our oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement). This northeastern Florida tourist destination offers picturesque coquina walls at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, a charming 144-square-block historic district centered around the bustling pedestrian-only St. George Street, 42 miles of nearby beaches and even the “fountain of youth.”
Set along the Atlantic Coast, it’s also one of many Florida locales struggling with “sunny day flooding” — when seawater, as a result of climate change’s effect on sea levels, spills out from storm water drains and onto city streets. It doesn’t take a Hurricane Matthew striking St. Augustine or even a heavy rainfall to wreak havoc.
Monthly high tides do the trick, flooding city streets even on sunny days. According to last year’s National Climate Assessment, by 2045 nearly 64,000 homes in Florida will face similar flooding every other week.
2. Bar Harbor, Maine — Shooting up the Eastern Seaboard to Maine and Acadia National Park presents a different challenge tied to climate change. As the historic gateway to Acadia, Bar Harbor is more than a worthy summer destination. If your plans revolve around the Fourth of July, consider shifting it to the top of your list.
Indeed, National Geographic ranks Bar Harbor as one of the top 10 local destinations to celebrate Independence Day in the United States. Patriotic festivities begin with an outdoor blueberry pancake breakfast and conclude with a traditional fireworks celebration over Frenchman Bay, with American lobster races and lunches in between.
Here’s the catch: The prized American lobster is one of several species in the region affected by climate change. As oceans absorb heat from the warming atmosphere, their waters have warmed, too, about 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1980. In the Gulf of Maine, sea surface temperatures are rising at nearly twice this global rate because of a weakening Labrador current from the north and strengthening warm Gulf Stream from the south.
What does this mean if you’re a lobster? American lobsters are migrating northeast to cooler waters at the rate of 43 miles a decade, according to a 2013 Princeton University study. Just ask southern New England about the devastating financial implications — the lobster industry there has already crashed.
More directly to your summer vacation purposes, by the middle of this century our American lobster will require renaming, as it heads north to new habitats. Go now, before celebrating Independence Day in Maine is possible only with Canadian lobsters.
3. Glacier National Park, Montana — Skipping across the country to majestic Glacier National Park, more evidence of climate change awaits. Home to about 150 glaciers in 1910 when the park was established, the park had only 26 glaciers still large enough to count as active, according to U.S. Geological Survey criteria in 2015. Between 2030 and 2080, that number will shrink to zero. Go now before they are gone, too.
See it this summer
Travel is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing climate change. Beyond taking care to minimize one’s vacation carbon footprint, visiting some places runs the risk of adding to the climate change problem rather than inspiring broader public support for climate solutions.
By these measures, some types of travel are harder to justify than others. (Antarctica’s fragile ecology comes to mind.) But that doesn’t mean shunning all opportunities. Personally seeing effects of climate change at some of the nation’s most treasured destinations may help encourage meaningful action.
Borrowing from Mark Twain, “vegetating in one little corner of the earth” is not the answer. To better understand climate change, take a trip and see it yourself this summer. Go before it’s gone.
Mike Gunter Jr. is professor of political science and director of international affairs at Rollins College and author of “Tales of an Ecotourist: What Travel to Wild Places Can Teach Us about Climate Change” (SUNY Press, 2018).