Why Our Climate Smart Commitment Is Good Global Citizenship

A Note from Rick Steves' Europe COO Craig Davidson…

At Rick Steves' Europe, we consider ourselves travel teachers first. We are in the business of equipping travelers with the skills to have a lifetime of fun, affordable, and culturally broadening trips.

We believe travel isn’t just one of life’s simple pleasures – it’s as essential as breathing. Thoughtful travel lets us weave our own unique cultural tapestry and connect with the world on a deeper level. It turns us into global citizens by showing us that we share the planet with billions of unique individuals, each with their own perspective. It teaches us about our differences, celebrates our similarities, respects diversity, fosters equity, treasures inclusion, and urges us to build stronger communities.

But membership in the global community comes at a price. We can’t ignore that every trip we take negatively impacts the environment. There is no question that the climate crisis is real. We see the effects when we travel, and we experience it here at home – with heat waves, droughts, floods, and “once-in-a-century” weather crises now occurring with alarming frequency.

It’s not surprising, then, that some people might think the only option is to stop travelling. We don’t agree. That’s why we created our Climate Smart Commitment.

We believe that travelers should be held accountable for our environmental impact. However, governments don’t legislate it, accounting standard boards don’t require it, and many companies ignore it. So instead, we created our own program. It begins with the traditional shareholder model, but we added our fragile earth and our community to the list of key shareholders. And then, to ensure the earth received an adequate dividend, we created a “self-imposed carbon tax” to fund climate-related projects. (You can read more about how we determined the amount of our self-imposed carbon tax in our FAQ, and learn about our non-climate philanthropic activities.)

Each year, we pay back the earth by investing the proceeds from our self-imposed carbon tax in non-profit organizations performing climate-smart work around the globe. Each project we fund is based on our core values and designed to tackle issues related to climate change head-on. For example, we address the inequalities created by the global capital market system — the most inhumane development model that exists (but the only model we have) — by recognizing climate change hits the poorest people in the poorest countries the hardest. That’s why we focus on farmers in the developing world while simultaneously educating consumers about bad behavior by global brands (so they can advocate with their pocketbooks) and demanding accountability from our politicians.

That means most of our funds go towards climate-smart projects in the developing world that are intended to reduce carbon emissions from farming, restore biodiversity, and strengthen communities through the education of women and girls. We believe that this is where the need is greatest, where our money goes the farthest, and where the projects make the greatest impact on the quality of life of the recipients and on our warming climate.

After all, many of those impacted by climate change are smallholder farmers, who only want to provide a solid and stable livelihood for their families, give their children a better life, adapt to the reality of the global economic system, and feed the world. But given the realities of global wealth distribution, their traditional farming techniques contribute greatly to climate change — and very few alternatives are available to them.

That’s because most smallholder farmers devote all their land to growing one crop (a system called monocropping) and are at the mercy of commodity pricing. As commodity prices fall (because food production companies still want to make a profit, but we don’t want to pay more for food at our local grocery store) the farmers make less money. Less money means less profit, and less profit means no escape from extreme poverty and food insecurity.

To compensate, many farmers try to expand production to make more money and offset the falling prices. Some deforest the land that surrounds their farms, others try to improve yields by using more chemicals, and others switch over to livestock farming — all of which cause significant carbon emissions. Being trapped in extreme poverty also means farmers and their families live in a constant pall of smoke caused by the open pit fires that dominate their living areas and burn continually to boil water or cook food. Kids can’t go to school because they (and their mothers) are constantly fetching water and firewood (generally through deforestation). It’s a never-ending cycle of poverty and hopelessness.

Some farmers and family members recognize there is no hope for a future and leave the villages (becoming a political talking point, if they come to the US border). Others lose their land and become victims of illegal land grabs orchestrated by bad operators — whether gangs or companies — who then farm the land and profit from selling the crop to a global food production company (without penalty). Others are forced to work on the land that was once theirs — living in miserable conditions and earning below-poverty wages — because there is no other choice. Other companies deforest rainforests and protected lands without recourse, displacing people and destroying ecosystems.

Consequently, the last remaining forested areas of the globe are turning into food production centers and urban areas, carbon emissions are continuing to grow unabated, less and less land is available for carbon sequestration, and climate change is accelerating. The result: The wild is being destroyed, an ongoing humanitarian crisis is being largely ignored, and our food supply is becoming more insecure (see United Nations report). And as global citizens, we believe inaction is inhumane.

We know this won't be easy. But then again, the effects of climate change aren't simple.

Climate change is a global problem with global solutions, but every solution relies on people understanding the issues and taking accountability for their actions. We like to think of our Climate Smart Commitment as creating a diversified mutual fund of climate-smart projects where the primary investment is in people. How could a company that values human interaction do anything less?

Of course, we’ll fund some projects that won't deliver what we expected, and others will succeed beyond our wildest dreams. All we can promise is that every project in our portfolio will be designed to provide a return to our most important shareholder — the earth — while strengthening the communities involved. And we will be transparent with you about them all.

We hope other companies do it too.