Climate Change and Sustainable Tourism: A Point/Counterpoint

This article originally appeared in TIES Research Corner.  April 2011.

Airplane ContrailsIs climate change the biggest challenge to tourism sustainability in the 21st century?

The academic Journal of Sustainable Tourism started this year off with a debate about climate change and sustainable tourism. The first article, titled “Can sustainable tourism survive climate change?” is available for download in the public domain. Here, the author David Weaver kicks off the debate by positing that the climate change agenda may not be in the best interest of sustainable tourism. He gives seven issues with addressing climate change. They are:

1) Limited and imbalanced knowledge. Research on the relationship between climate change and tourism isn’t well-rounded enough yet to inform policy. For example, of all papers published on the topic, most projected the impact of climate change on tourism in affluent countries (namely ski destinations) while only 15% investigated tourism’s contribution to climate change. Less than 10% these studies have focused on impacts in less economically developed countries.

2) The unpredictability of future outcomes. Beyond 5 to 10 years into the future, uncertainty reigns. The number of variables and unpredictable situations make forecasting climate change unreliable for informing mitigation and adaptation strategy.

3) Accusation of dogmatic and uncomprmised engagement. Extremist media-driven agendas and even scandals among the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Control) such as “climategate” are undermining the neutrality and credibility of climate change science.

4) Fickle Markets. Tourism consumers in more affluent countries are aware of and concerned about climate change, but are unwilling to change their consuming patterns accordingly (i.e. fly less). He calls this “superficial environnmentalism” or “veneer environmentalism.” Even the most high-minded societies will therefore remain “mobility promiscuous.”

5) A house dividing? Adaption vs. Mitigation. Here, Weaver points out a potential conflict between adaptionists, whose “capitalism-compatible” response to climate change is formed by faith in technological solutions, and mitigationists whose commitment to reducing green house gases is less compatible with a pro-growth ethos.

6) Distracting from the intensity perspective. Attention to tourism sustainability is divided between the “volume perspective” that concerns itself with the global effects of travel-related carbon emissions, and the “intensity perspective” that concerns itself with destination-level impacts such as congestion. Destination planners pay lip-service to ideas like becoming “carbon neutral” rather than addressing more local intensity issues.

7) Lack of industry commitment. Tourism industry and hospitality management, with their superficial gestures such as the ubiquitous linen re-usage signs in hotels, also take on a “veneer environmentalism” that lacks any deep action or self-regulation.

As a final word, Weaver criticizes the effectiveness of allocating scarce resources to climate change, given the “lack of directly tangible consequences or clearly identifiable villains.” He calls for adaptation where it is strategic rather than empty claims about “carbon neutrality,” and for mitigation where it is a localized initiative to address intensity issues (such as habitat restoration) and may also have implications for climate change.

Daniel Scott answers Weaver’s argument in his response opinion piece “Why Sustainable Tourism Must Address Climate Change.” This paper is not available in the public domain. Scott addresses each of Weaver’s seven points, furthering a healthy and important discussion between the field’s leading experts. As an introduction, Scott affirms that climate change is indeed the biggest challenge to sustainable tourism in the 21st century. His counters to each of the seven points are as follows:

1) Limited and unbalanced knowledge. Scott agrees that there is a ‘knowledge gap’ on the subject, citing that only 1.7% of tourism papers in the past decade have addressed climate change. But he sees this as a call to research action rather than a reason for policy-makers not to implement. He’s optimistic that a critical mass of knowledge is indeed emerging to inform both the public and private sectors of tourism.

2) The unpredictability of future outcomes. Scott agrees that uncertainty is uncomfortable, but “cannot be allowed to paralyze decision-making in tourism.” Many industries, not just tourism, will be affected by climate change and are already working across disciplines to overcome its complexities so as to “think in terms of long-term sustainability.”

3) Accusations of dogmatic and uncompromised engagement. Here, Scott “clears the air” on climategate and other scandals that threaten the credibility of climate change science. He also notes that in the scientific community, there is little debate over the reality of anthropogenic climate change. 97%-98% support its tenets.

4) Fickle markets. Scott agrees with Weaver’s values-behavior gap of veneer environmentalists, and is “pessimistic that the norms of tourism mobility developed over the last 30–40 years will change through some groundswell of voluntary social change.” Emissions reduction and mitigation will have to come through government policy.

5) A house dividing? Adaptation vs. mitigation. Scott sees both adaptation and mitigation as inextricably linked to sustainable tourism development strategies, and that mitigation is indeed compatible with pro-growth capitalism as a “transformational opportunity.”

6) Distracting from the intensity perspective. Sustainable tourism development must account for the transport phase of tourism and its impact, not just tourism’s intensity impact on the destination. Climate change is simply added to the broader list of sustainability issues.

7) Lack of industry commitment. Scott agrees that carbon reduction aspirations among the airline sector has been purely aspirational, and destination government commitments to “carbon neutrality” as pure greenwash marketing. Yet, efforts toward a more sustainable tourism from within the industry itself should not be abandoned but rather developed and measured.

In his concluding thoughts, Scott contends that “how tourism responds to climate change is absolutely critical to sustainability of tourism” and that “climate change is a decision-making reality that will not go away” for tourism and every other sector. Reducing investment in climate change mitigation and adaptation would be a recipe for long-term failure. He reminds us that, according to the latest consensus, society should be preparing to adapt to +4◦C global warming.

Perhaps Weaver started the discussion as a sort of devil’s advocate, wanting it to be affirmed that climate change is the biggest challenge to tourism sustainability in the 21st century by presenting a hypothesis to the contrary. Scott rounded out the debate by providing that important affirmation.


Scott, Daniel (2011). ‘Why sustainable tourism must address climate change’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 19(1), 17-34.

Weaver, David (2011). ‘Can sustainable tourism survive climate change?’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 19(1), 5-15.

Categories: Academic papers, Portfolio,

1 Comments Add Yours ↓

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    I do not understand why the academics cannot participate more in a wiki environment in which they have the opportunity to integrate their more instead of playing the point-counterpoint scenario. That said, special kudos to Cynthia for clearly summarizing the points (particularly in the feature that does not have public access).


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