According to some polls, Americans generally agree with 17-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg that the threat of climate change is a national emergency. A survey taken by Yale and George Mason universities this past fall reported that 62 percent of registered voters would approve of a president declaring a national emergency to deal with global warming.
A majority of those polled said they approved of a laundry list of government actions designed to punish the fossil fuel industry and encourage other sources of energy as well as providing tax rebates to citizens who did things like erect solar panels on their homes or purchased energy-efficient vehicles.
But nowhere in the list of things that should be done to cope with the “national emergency” that voters liked were measures that would affect their lifestyles or choices.
So while Thunberg — Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year — continues to be covered by the mainstream media as a latter day Joan of Arc, there is little evidence that many people are actually seeking to follow her example. They may weep and cheer when she demonstrates contempt for the democratic process and excoriates her elders for failing to adopt her diktats without debate, as she has done at conferences at Davos and the United Nations.
But on actions that will supposedly save the planet from burning up within 18 months (or whatever the current consensus about the best date to use to scare people into declaring a national emergency happens to be), few Americans seem willing to be like Greta. That’s good news for the travel industry but bad news for those who take the global warming movement’s predictions of doom seriously.
Thunberg got an ocean of publicity last summer by traveling to a UN summit in New York via a sailboat rather than sully herself by getting on an airplane. Her zero carbon emissions travel was something of a fraud, since the captain and crew of the $10 million racing yacht on which she hitched a ride across the Atlantic wound up having to take flights to retrieve it while she lectured Americans on their environmental sins.
But her stunt still seemed admirable compared to the hypocrisy of celebrities like Britain’s Prince Harry, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and former President Barack Obama, who were among those who flew into a Google Camp event on the environment on 114 private jets.
But while Thunberg’s travel plan seems like virtue signaling on steroids, her point about airplanes is linked to something more serious. According to a 2018 study published by Nature Climate Change, tourism alone is responsible for 8 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That has led to a movement in Europe called flight shaming, or flygskam in Swedish, that may ultimately lead to a decline in air travel.
It was in that context that The New York Times unveiled its annual “52 Places to Go” feature earlier last month, which featured the best tourism sites for 2020 with a special emphasis on “sustainable travel.” The conceit of the article was to paint the various venues as not merely interesting or beautiful sites to visit but to also somehow portray them as places where the environment was respected or protected. The soft feature attempted to make the massive amount of greenhouse gas produced by haute bourgeois tourists hopping on planes to the Virgin Islands, Bolivia, Greenland, and the Kimberly region of Australia as less sinful than it might otherwise seem to be.
But to genuine environmental alarmists like former CNN Travel executive Chuck Thompson, the whole idea of “sustainable” travel is an oxymoron. Writing in The New Republic, Thompson denounces the writers and editors of The Times list for trying to make something as inherently sinful as tourism seem acceptable. From the frame of reference of those who truly believe that global warming is going to soon destroy the planet, it’s hard to argue with his logic.
Thompson says the urge to travel the world is an “addiction” that is as self-destructive as alcoholism with the difference being that drunks are killing themselves but tourists are murdering Mother Earth. He paints a grim picture of a future in which the world’s loveliest spots are overrun by Chinese tourists: “As the world becomes ever-more distressed by over-tourism — the 145 million annual overseas trips currently taken by Chinese tourists alone is expected to surpass 300 million by 2030.”
The growth of tourism, as people in formerly poverty-stricken nations like China join Americans and Europeans in spending their leisure time expanding their horizons abroad, will overwhelm any other government measures aimed at curbing warming. The only conclusion to be drawn from this is, as Thompson sees it, simple: “tourism must die” if the planet is to live.
But while one might dismiss this is just one more variation on the environmental alarmist theme in which a genuine problem is exaggerated to scare people into advocating greater governmental regulations, Thompson has enough common sense to understand that flight shaming isn’t going to stop consumers from spending their vacations flying to nice places they want to visit. The general public may be willing to cheer an autistic teenager’s rage against democracy, but Thompson is right that few will follow her example and give up flying, let alone the other aspects of Thunberg’s fanaticism .
The main target of environmental extremism isn’t really the fossil fuel industry, plastic straws, or even President Donald Trump. The real obstacle to the goals of radicals like Thunberg is the freedom of movement that is among capitalism’s greatest gifts to mankind.
Automobiles gave people the ability to live where they like, even if it wasn’t close to where they worked, and to travel where they wanted. Reasonably priced air travel similarly gave ordinary citizens privileges that were once reserved only for the ultra-rich, such as the ability to visit resorts and the world’s wonders.
You can call it, as Thompson does, an addiction or something more basic to the human experience. Still, the ordinary socially conscious liberal may be willing to give up plastic straws but she isn’t likely to give up her right to move freely around the planet just because a 17-year-old public scold or some other ideologue tells them to.
Popular culture has inculcated younger generations with the global warming catechism. Radical environmental fixes are fashionable and most Americans haven’t the chutzpah to tell pollsters they oppose them even if they don’t really support such measures or want to live with the consequences of restricting economic growth. But the notion that 21st century Americans are going to be willing to live as if they are in the 19th because Greta or The New Republic tells them to is farcical. The Times can publish as much about sustainable tourism as they like, but Americans aren’t giving it up.