Rick Steves is known for his PBS travel show and for booking 30,000 people on his European tours each year. And while he claims to be neither environmentalist nor particularly environmentally savvy, Steves is trying to balance his success by reducing the carbon footprint of all of those travelers he leads on holiday.
"I want to stress, I’m not doing anything heroic. I just want to pay my fair share," says Steves. "If I’m profiting off of making people fly to Europe to join my tours, then I should cover the cost of their flight to Europe and back to our environment."
He tried different approaches, including planting six trees for every person on his tours. "I thought, well, that’s kind of cool. So I spent a lot of money one year buying trees for everybody who took our tours. But I decided that was more of a feel good thing and I wanted to get into something that really fit our style,” Steves notes.
His resulting Climate Smart Commitment plan is straightforward. $1 million will be donated each year to nonprofits involved in, what Steves describes as, climate-smart projects.
"We created a portfolio where we give $1 million to six or seven organizations who are either investing in climate-smart agriculture programs in the developing world or advocating in Washington D.C. ... so that our government is more smart and honest and ethical when it comes to dealing with climate change as it confronts our entire planet," he explains.
Steves hopes other businesses follow his company’s lead.
"We’ve distilled it into a very tight and concise program on our website in hopes that other travel companies can be inspired by this and steal it from us. Take this whole thing lock, stock and barrel ... and make it fit your company and then you too can let your travelers travel in a way where their flights are carbon neutral."
While some in the United States are still arguing whether climate change is real, Steves says countries around the world are grappling with it and confronting it head on.
"I see it everywhere I go. I was just in the Netherlands; they’ve got this storm surge barrier they’ve built to protect Rotterdam from high water. It’s as big as two Eiffel Towers put on their side on wheels and it rolls shut when the water is high. I’ve been in Norway with tour companies that used to take people on glacier walks and there’s no more glaciers in that valley. I’ve been in Sweden which is inundated with Italians in the summer trying the escape the unlivable heat Italy is suffering through in the summer."
But Steves says it’s people living in the poorest countries in the world who suffer most. "That's really what motivates me to do this. I know ... what it’s like to walk with a farmer in the dry zone in Guatamala. Historically the food ran out before the next harvest in May, now it begins in March. It’s a devastating change for the lives of the people and it’s out of their control because it’s caused by climate change."
Still, the travel guru says he’s optimistic.
"We believe every business should bear the cost to the environment of their activities. We hope this program will inspire everyone to practice the same environmental ethic. This way, long after we are gone, our children will be able to enjoy the same healthy environment to travel in that we currently do," says Steves.
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