It happened in an exhibition hall in the suburbs of Paris: 187 countries, including every one where we likely send our clients, signed a universal agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to avoid the most dangerous consequences of a continuation of the "fossil fuel era."
Meetings on this subject had been taking place for almost 20 years. The United Nations had been working on an agreement for four years, trying to bind together the interests of the world's richest and poorest countries.
The agreement was structured in a way that does not require the approval of Congress, a contingency that could well have seen the U.S. become the only nation on Earth to refuse to join this transition from fossil fuels in the direction of a cleaner-energy-based economy.
This is not likely to solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. The wording says that signatories must move aggressively to peak emissions by 2030 and to eliminate them by 2050. But as travel consultants or suppliers, I suppose we have the right to say, "Fine, but what does this have to do with my business?"
The big-picture take on the climate deal is that 187 countries were actually able to converse in civil tones while stamping out a hard-fought document on which they could all agree. In this new year, as terrorist plots and anti-government rhetoric dominate the evening news, there must be something comforting to the traveler about this agreement.
No travel people were asked to speak at this meeting. Yet as the folks who move people around the world, we know that there are examples of places where we need to make our clients aware of potential climate-related changes. I know that some of our readers are offended when I use the term "climate change." An article I wrote several years ago in which I mildly referred to its existence elicited more nasty mail than anything I had ever written.
So let's not talk about climate change. Let's not mention the fact that some of us, my office included, are now cautioning older clients who want to go to southern Europe in July and August. Europe had its hottest summer in 2015 since records have been kept; the same is forecast for this summer. As travel counselors we have to make certain that our clients are both reminded and agreeable to travel in oppressive heat and humidity, especially if outdoor touring involving non-air-conditioned walking is the primary mode of travel.
Supplier reservations staff will gladly accept bookings from 70-year-olds with walking challenges and breathing issues. The fact is that they will not ask about the health of those they are booking on a tour or cruise in southern Italy in August (nor will they be pointing out that many of the most interesting restaurants and shops are closed as their owners seek refuge from the heat). But as consultants and trusted advisers, isn't it our responsibility to know as much about the health of our clients as possible and to advise accordingly?
Now I know that some will say that is a violation of a client's right to privacy. Nonsense. If I am going to send someone to a walking inferno for a week or two in mid-summer, perhaps the last trip they will ever take short of the Final Countdown, you can be damn sure I am going to warn them where warnings are advisable.
So let's not talk about climate change. Instead, let's focus on something we can see and feel. Let's talk, just for a moment or two, about the growing problem of tourism-related air pollution and its impact on how and when we send our clients.
I am talking about places that may not be hot enough to induce cardiac arrest. Instead, let's look at a different portion of the body, the lungs of our clients.
During the past few months, polluted haze has engulfed Singapore and portions of Malaysia and Indonesia and has moved on to create serious levels of air pollution in southern Thailand's tourist sector.
The dark haze is caused by deliberately set forest fires. The thick smog has reached hazardous levels in five Thai provinces, causing blackened air reaching officially designated "hazardous" levels. People in some of Thailand's most popular tourist destinations have now taken to wearing masks, schools have been closed and the elderly have been instructed not to leave their homes.
Who would set deliberate forest fires creating a crisis in this part of Asia that is, according to the Thai Environmental Office, "the worst in 10 years"? They are caused by local companies, small landowners and farmers who find "slash-and-burn" farming methods to be much more cost effective than alternative methods of irrigation and conservation. Most of the fires originate in Indonesia and expand throughout the region.
This pollution is causing travel delays, flight cancellations and a run on local hospitals in portions of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Should we be telling our clients not to go or to go but purchase masks with an oxygen supply should they venture outside?
In stylish Milan, the air has been so filthy, according to the New York Times, that cars and motorcycles are being selectively banned from city streets during times of particularly dangerous pollution.
In Rome, where nothing governmental is ever simple, auto traffic is being limited based on the last numbers on a driver's license plate. As Italians seek to drive diesel models they are contributing to the pollution inasmuch as diesel engines release more emissions than gasoline-fueled cars. More and more Italians are driving two cars, one with even and one with odd plates.
It isn't only major cities in Italy that have experienced abnormally high rates of air pollution, with scores serious enough to have a detrimental effect on health. Milan's mayor is concerned about surrounding towns and cities in the north of Italy that are not instituting driving restrictions even though air pollution is a regional rather than a city-specific problem.
Do we tell our clients not to go to Italy this year because of the possibility of serious pollution and curbs on driving that can affect tourism and the delivery of services? I won't be doing that and, I suspect, neither will you. But, again, I wonder, how does the consumer, particularly the "most vulnerable" to congestion and pollution-related illness, get honest, up-to-date information on those areas where serious pollution levels are possible or even likely?
I haven't yet mentioned the most obvious destinations with choking levels of air pollution, India and China. The World Health Organization rates New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world among the 1,600 it regularly tests. The pollution rates in India are staggering, and new rules regarding the driving of diesel cars have been put into place. Taxes have been raised on taxis and trucks. Any client of mine anticipating travel to India will be made aware of the pollution levels in the cities.
While we were celebrating Christmas with our families this year, Beijing issued a red alert, its highest level of warning. Nine other Chinese cities issued similar warnings during prime tourist season. In order to bring attention to the problem, artists in China's major cities have taken to staging "disappearances" in front of tourist sites like the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven. They wear pollution-stained clothing amid air so think onlookers cannot see them.
My take on this is that we need to pile still another item on our large counseling plate. I won't tell my clients not to go to the world's most heavily polluted tourist destinations, but I will try, as best I can, to cover this important topic with some degree of specificity so they can make up their own minds.
I don't want to talk about travel negatives; the media does more than their share of this. But when I think of specific clients, particularly those who have worked their entire lives in the hope that they can enjoy worry-free travel as they get older, it is clear that "if not us, who?" will inform them about air pollution and its effect on healthy travel in many parts of the world.