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Opinion: Vacations as we know it are over

by Staff

Editor’s Note: Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College London and author of “Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN opinion here.


Terrified tourists holidaying in the Greek Islands this week came face-to-face with the future.

Courtersy Bill McGuire

Bill McGuire

As wildfires, driven by record-breaking heat, tinder-box conditions and strong winds, raged across the islands of Rhodes, Corfu and Evia, thousands of visitors, along with residents, had to flee the flames — many with just the clothes they were wearing.

It would be a big mistake to regard these as freak events and to continue holidaying as usual in the years ahead. On the contrary, the extreme weather conditions across southern Europe this summer are a wake-up call — a reminder that not even our vacations are insulated from the growing consequences of global heating.

This view is reinforced by a new study published earlier this week which showed that both the European and North American heatwaves would have been all but impossible without climate change.

The plague of heat and fires that our world is experiencing today is one consequence of a 1.2 degrees Celsius hike in the global average temperature, compared to pre-industrial times.

A 2 degrees Celsius rise, which we are currently on target to far exceed by the end of the century, would see the average number of heatwave days increase six-fold across southern Europe — so that 1 in 100-year heatwaves would happen every other year.

Even northern Europe would see a tripling of extreme heat events, which could be expected once every five years.

The reality is that the ongoing heatwaves and wildfires provide us with glimpses of worse to come in the decades ahead as our planet gets ever hotter — but this is not a natural progression, it is a direct result of humankind’s carbon-polluting activities.

Lefteris Damianidis/Reuters

Tourists are evacuated as wildfire burns near Lindos, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, on July 22. A new report finds that heat waves in the US and Europe this year would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

Actions have consequences. And a straight line can be drawn from the huge volumes of carbon dioxide pumped out as millions fly off on a summer holiday every year, to the heat, fires and other episodes of extreme weather that now endanger both resorts and those who visit them.

The events of the last week in the Greek Islands should, then, give us pause for thought, not only about whether we should any longer be flying on holiday to places that may threaten us and our loved ones — but about the whole point of having a holiday.

For many of us, jetting off every year on a foreign break has almost become instinctive — just something we do without really thinking about it.

If southern Europe is out of bounds due to increasing heat, then the tendency for many will be to find somewhere else that looks — on the face of it at least — less risky. But this isn’t the answer.

Climate breakdown is set to become all-pervasive and affect every aspect of our lives and livelihoods, and already extreme weather can happen pretty much anywhere. So, what to do?

Last year, UK residents made more than 46 million trips to go on holiday abroad. This can’t go on, nor should it, both for the peace of mind of holiday-makers increasingly worried about growing extreme weather, and for the good of the planet.

Vacations need to return to their roots, or at least move in that direction. In particular, holidays abroad need to be decoupled from flying, which means — as far as Europe is concerned — train, car or coach.

There are issues, of course. A just-published Greenpeace analysis revealed that travelling by train around Europe is, on average, four times more expensive than flying. Travelling by road takes longer, and is likely to involve hours of frustrating queueing at ports.

But on the plus side, the journey itself becomes part of the holiday. Airport scrums and delays are avoided and, most importantly for the climate, carbon emissions are massively reduced.

In any case, the aviation sector is not getting off scot-free as temperatures climb, and delays and cancellations are set to become far more common. As I write this, both Palermo and Catania airports in Sicily are closed because of wildfires. In the US, the impact of extreme heat on aircraft engines, and on the lift the wings provide during take-off, means that planes are having to reduce weight by shedding fuel load, passengers or baggage or wait for temperatures to fall.

Perhaps the solution is to focus on what we really want and need from a holiday — a period of well-earned rest and recuperation that recharges the batteries and sets us up for the next round of the daily grind.

We should ask ourselves if we have to experience the exotic and the unfamiliar to accomplish this — especially when an increased risk to life and limb attaches to holidays in distant lands — or if we can get it closer to home.

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Maybe we should take a lesson from the pandemic, when staycations were pretty much enforced. There is so much to marvel at in our own countries, even though its climate is also changing.

The UK, where I live, is far from immune to the wild weather that global heating is driving, as the over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures and destructive wildfires of last year testify, and severe heatwaves will become more commonplace.

If you like the heat, increasingly you won’t need to travel, it will find you. Nonetheless, the familiarity and convenience of being close to home can bring its own contentment, comfort and well-being.

What’s more, we’ll be able sunbathe in the warm glow of knowing we have slashed the size of our carbon footprint — making us part of the solution rather than the problem.

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