Visiting Melting Glaciers Can Be Profound. But Is It Morally Wrong?

How to weigh the moral costs of your climate change tour

Are these kinds of experiences worth the carbon footprint? dmbaker / iStock

In August, Crystal Cruises embarked on the first commercial cruise through the Northwest Passage. For $21,855, the cruise line promised a unique journey “through majestic waterways, spectacular glaciers, and towering fjords … where nature is truly wild and landscapes are absolutely breathtaking.” This triumph was made possible in part to rapidly declining ice in the Arctic region.

Environmentalists were swift to point out the inherent irony in taking a trip on a luxury cruise liner with a huge carbon footprint to a majestic region opened up by climate change. Beyond the irony, they voiced a greater concern: that creating a market for commercial travel in this previously unexplored region could have detrimental impacts on the the Arctic's landscapes and wildlife, many of which had never been exposed to humanity’s footprint.

As climate change reshapes the planet and opens up once unreachable locales, it is only natural that tourism would follow. These areas aren’t just interesting to travelers because they offer adventure and scenic vistas; they also offer a kind of experience that could disappear forever if climate change continues unabated. Now these opportunities are creating profound ethical dilemmas—for travelers as well as ethicists.

Today, interested travelers can book a nine-day trip that takes them through Africa looking for elephants, animals that are severely threatened by climate change and poaching. They can also book an adventure tour of the Great Barrier Reef, which scientists warn is being “devastated” by climate change. These kind of once-in-a-lifetime experiences have driven a new kind of travel dubbed “extinction tourism.”

When it comes to such journeys, ethicists have to weigh actual climate effects with impacts on personal behavior. They ask: Is it worth burning the fossil fuels to travel to a remote or threatened part of the world, and open that area up to more travel and human activity, just to see the impacts of climate change first hand? Will seeing a receding glacier have enough of a personal impact on you, as a traveler, to make the consequences of your visit worth it?

Judith Stark, a professor at Seton Hall University who specializes in applied ethics, thinks about these questions all the time. “Going to these really remote places, what does that do to the ecological integrity to the places themselves?” she says. “It’s really a matter of balancing the value of that experience and the educational opportunity of that experience with the inherent value of nature and species that are not simply there for our use and our entertainment. To try and balance those two is difficult.”

For people living in developed countries—especially people that live away from the coast and aren’t familiar with coastal flooding or sea level rise—the consequences of climate change can feel far off and impersonal. Traveling to a place impacted by climate change can bring it home. If a journey has enough of an impact that it causes someone to make changes in their daily life, or gets them talk to friends and family about the dangers of climate change, Stark says, then that trip could be considered “morally acceptable.”

Brian Green, assistant director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and a professor at Santa Clara University, agrees. Green lived for years in the Marshall Islands, a chain of low-lying volcanic islands and atolls located in the Pacific Ocean that are among the places most directly threatened by global climate change. In 2015, a United States Geological Survey study found that the Marshall Islands and island nations like it could be uninhabitable within a matter of decades due to sea level rise and increased flooding from tropical storms.

When Green teaches his students about the uncertain future facing inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, they tend to relate to it more personally than abstract stories about climate change and its consequences. That same feeling, he says, might translate to travelers that see the impact of climate change firsthand. But there’s also a darker reason for visiting these kinds of endangered areas.

“The only thing that is going to be left of [the Marshall Islands] is memory,” Green says, “and so I think its important for people to experience that, and for people to see that this is having a human impact. It’s not just a theoretical thing out there. It’s something that is here, among us.”

Both Green and Stark say that the fossil fuels required to get to a place like the Marshall Islands or Antarctica make such a trip morally complicated. Seeing a threatened location first hand can have a lasting impact on the traveler—but how do we weigh the benefits of travel with the concrete consequences of adding harmful emissions into the atmosphere?

Stark argues that things like carbon offsets or tours that run on renewable energy can make trips both more environmentally and ethically friendly. She says that carbon offsets, if purchased through a reliable source, can offer travelers an effective way of mitigating some of the greenhouse gas emissions created by their travel. And some tours are working to make it so that travelers don’t have any carbon emissions to offset: Alaska Coach Tours, which takes tourists on trips to the Mendenhall Glacier, has begun testing electric buses in an effort to make their tours more sustainable. (That still doesn’t account for getting to Alaska in the first place.)

Not all tours operators are created equal. Groups like the Audubon Society offer tours that focus on teaching travelers about the importance of conservation and environmental stewardship. Through their ecotourism programs, they’ve been able to fund a suite of conservation programs, including helping to get critical wintering habitat for birds in the Bahamas turned into a national park, or training bird guides in Belize to contribute to the local tourism economy.  The Basecamp Foundation specializes in promoting sustainable tourism in sensitive areas, like in the Kenyan Mara Naboisho Conservancy, which is home to herds of elephants and some of the highest density populations of lions in the world.

“There is something valuable in having that direct, immediate experience,” Stark says. “If it is educational, if it is environmentally sound, if it is sustainable, I think it looks to me to be morally acceptable.”

However, what pushes a trip across the line from morally acceptable to outrageous is, like most ethical questions, open to interpretation. In Green’s opinion, a trip becomes ethically untenable if the damage created by the traveler, or the trip itself, is worse than the damage that would be wrought by climate change.  For Stark, the line comes when a place has been so compromised by climate change that the damage is irreversible. In that case, she argues, the value of experience is outweighed by the inevitability of destruction.

In the greater scheme of things, the emissions caused by travel might seem small compared to notorious polluters like industry and energy; the aviation industry accounts for a mere 2 percent of global emissions, compared with 35 percent from energy and 21 percent from industry. But for individuals that travel frequently, Stark says, being deliberate about the trips they choose can have a significant impact on their personal carbon footprint.

“Every molecule of carbon dioxide or methane that we keep out of the atmosphere is a good thing,” Stark says. “You don’t have to think on a huge scale. You can just think on a smaller scale, and what is possible for you.”

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