Start the conversations about climate change impacts on your campus’ study abroad program
Concerns Over Climate Change Are Growing
The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Perceptions Survey was dominated by concerns about deteriorating environmental risks. “Failure to mitigate climate change” and “Failure of climate-change adaptation” led the top 10 global risks, by severity, that are expected to manifest over the next decade. Today, globalization touches all corners of a college campus in the form of promotion/recruitment, research, study, alumni engagement, athletic competition, arts performances, internships, service learning/volunteering, and fundraising. And sooner or later, most – if not all – of these activities involve student, faculty, and staff international travel.
Risks to Travelers
The World Meteorological Organization has predicted that there is a 66% chance the planet will pass the 1.5°C/34.7°F global warming threshold above pre-industrial temperatures for at least one year between 2023 and 2027. Scientists caution that 1.5 °C/34.7°F of warming is not a tipping point – for every tenth of a degree of warming, the more extreme heat waves, droughts, and storms become. Incidents of extreme heat, volatile weather, power outages, flooding, wildfires, and pollution can result in health and safety risks. In Europe and elsewhere this summer, we saw an increased need for healthcare resources to treat heatstroke, dehydration, and respiratory distress associated with high heat and wildfires. Travel to the island of Rhodes was periodically disrupted – some vacation-goers had to evacuate hotels and wait along the beach for the fire winds to shift. In other locations, it was too hot to engage in the usual tourist activities – even the Acropolis closed to reduce risks to visitors.
A lengthy heat wave can wreak havoc on a short-term study tour’s robust itinerary. To protect health, activities may be truncated, canceled, or repeatedly moved indoors, resulting in student disappointment (and parental complaints.) Being prepared for these pivots is one step – considering alternate locations or time frames where extreme heat will be less of a risk is another.
To reduce risk, institutions will increasingly need to take climate hazards into account when planning research or study abroad. For example, while the summer monsoon season runs from late May to late September in South Asia, torrential rains this July brought flash floods and landslides to northern India. Experts report that monsoon season is becoming more intense and less predictable. If changing the timeframe of travel is not feasible in this instance, institutions should evaluate the host institution/organization’s vulnerabilities – such as whether it is located in a floodplain and, if so, determine the facility’s ability to withstand floodwaters and/or mudslides. Institutions should also ensure travelers are prepared to shelter in place in the event they are unable to evacuate during a natural disaster, with sufficient supplies of potable water, food, medicine, and insect repellents to prepare for the likely increase in mosquito-borne diseases associated with the rainy season.
It’s also important for us to acknowledge that the strain of hosting a steady stream of students and tourists on outdated or inadequate infrastructure will amplify the impact. In some locations, extreme heat or cold for long periods of time may make travel impractical, unpleasant, and more costly. Short-term visitors may be willing to pay higher prices for food, water, and fuel resulting from an inconsistent supply chain, but this may create resentment on the part of locals. Dangerous weather, such as hurricanes, typhoons, or sandstorms, and their disastrous impacts threaten the safety of residents and travelers as well as have long-term impacts on the communities. Study abroad programs located in – or with frequent activities tied to – fragile ecosystems must consider balancing the impact of human activity with the importance of climate change education as well as the financial benefit such programs can bring to rural or remote communities.
Meet with your local partners (over Zoom!) to discuss their concerns about your travelers and the local impact. Invite them to address this topic with travelers as part of the travel preparation (over Zoom!). Specific examples (including photos or videos) will help illustrate a point. Ask your travelers to develop community standards (and compliance mechanisms) for reducing their footprint.
Develop/Improve Incident Response Plans and Update Insurance
It’s also time to develop or improve plans for responding to climate-related disasters, such as hurricanes/typhoons, flooding, and extreme heat. Review action steps with trip leaders, onsite staff, or program providers when tripwires are met. Have both robust shelter-in-place and evacuation plans.
Review insurance policies. Weather events impact travel. It is worth exploring options to add or expand trip delay, trip interruption, and trip cancellation benefits. Note the triggers for these benefits. Some are basic, only covering the cost of a flight due to a medical event. Others are broad covering most non-refundable costs due to several events including weather. More schools are promoting voluntary cancellation for any reason (CFAR) insurance. In general, CFAR costs a little over 4% of the cost of the insured trip and must be purchased within 15 days of the date the initial trip payment is received. Coverage is not 100% as typically 75% of the non-refundable trip costs are covered.
Security evacuation benefit language is also important. In extreme weather events the travelers are not returning to their destination and need transportation back to their home (home should be considered primary residence or campus).
Additional Action Steps
- Develop or increase funds to cover emergency needs not covered by insurance
- Review travel policies that mandate the purchase of emissions-high choices for marginal savings
- Reduce or eliminate travel where the benefits do not outweigh the detriments (e.g., could a 10-day study tour stay in one country and visit different cities by rail instead of visiting three different countries by plane?)
- Develop a culture that supports and provides incentives for longer-term study abroad students to “stay local” on the weekends
Start Those Conversations Around Climate Change Impacts Now
In sum, the international risk assessment community must take steps to evaluate its exposure and help programs and travelers mitigate associated risks for our travelers as well as the cities and communities we visit. Climate change is advancing more rapidly than expected in some locations, and institutions of higher education are notoriously slow to change. Conversations about the impacts of climate change and international travel can wait no longer. Institutions must plan today for the impacts of climate change tomorrow.
Krishnan, M. (2023, July 11). Climate change in India: A growing environmental crisis. DW.
Sommer, L. (2021, November 8). This is what the world looks like if we pass the crucial 1.5-degree climate threshold. NPR Special Series: COP 26.
World Economic Forum. (2023). The Global Risks Report 2023.
World Meteorological Organization. (2023). Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update.
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