Our Climate Smart Commitment: How and Why

Climate change is a reality. Humans are driving it, and only humans can stop it. In the future, people will look back at our generation and see that there were three kinds of people: misguided deniers; those who knew climate change was happening, but were greedy and did nothing when it was still possible to make a difference; and those who recognized the problem and did what they could to help solve it.

Each year, Rick Steves' Europe donates $1 million to climate-smart agriculture, conservation, and agroforestry projects in developing countries. We're paying a self-imposed carbon tax to account for the carbon footprint of the 30,000 people who fly to and from a Rick Steves' Europe tour each year. And we're not changing our tour prices to cover it — we're taking it out of our profits.

When carbon is emitted into our atmosphere, it creates a "greenhouse effect" that traps heat between us and space — heating up our planet. Every person and every business contributes to this problem, and we believe every person and every business has a responsibility to the environment. As a tour operator, Rick Steves' Europe contributes more to climate change than many businesses: one round-trip flight to Europe emits roughly as much carbon into our atmosphere as driving a car for six months.

To simply stop traveling would be the wrong solution. Travel is not only a great form of recreation, but also an important opportunity to broaden our perspectives and humanize the world by experiencing different cultures. Americans who travel gain empathy for the other 96 percent of humanity. As global citizens, we know we must be engaged in the world and stand up for the causes we believe in.

For all of these reasons, Rick Steves' Europe is committed to being a climate-smart tour company. It's our hope that this groundbreaking effort will inspire other travel companies to start similar programs, so their travelers can also enjoy the peace of mind that comes that comes from traveling ethically.

How We Built Our Program

According to development experts, it takes about $30 of careful investment in environmental initiatives to mitigate the carbon emissions created by one of our tour members traveling round-trip to Europe. We take about 30,000 travelers on our tours each year, which adds up to $900,000 — but we round that up and "owe" $1 million annually to be a climate-smart tour company.

Plenty of companies buy carbon offsets from big international brokers, with high administrative costs and low transparency. We want to do better. With this investment, we are directly funding a diverse portfolio of climate-smart organizations that advocate for smart policies and laws, conserve biodiverse lands, support small farms, and develop climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices.

We believe that, in addition to being the right thing to do, investing in climate-smart projects is a smart and responsible business practice.

Fighting Climate Change in the Developing World

Climate change is hitting the developing world hardest — and experts believe that is also where the greatest gains can be made. About a quarter of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are related to deforestation, soil management, and emissions from livestock (i.e., cow farts). At the same time, changes in weather patterns have impacted farmers and food supplies. More poverty means more hunger, more migration, and more conflict. This creates a vicious cycle of practices that exacerbate the problem. (The UN reports that, for the first time in a decade — because of the impact of climate change and greater conflict in and between poor countries — hunger is on the rise.)

To address this problem, the UN's Sustainable Development Goals call for "climate-smart agriculture" (CSA) initiatives. A relatively new approach to climate change, CSA has three pillars: increasing food production, adapting to the changing climate, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Experts call it "food security, adaptation, and mitigation." All three of these components are necessary.

Many environmental initiatives are meant to help struggling societies adapt to the effects of climate change. But we must also work to prevent the damage from happening in the first place (that's "mitigation"). Our outdated economic model makes exploiting the resources of the land more valuable than preserving the land itself. The result: The equivalent of 27 soccer fields of greenery is cut down every minute. The loss of these forests is the second largest source of carbon emissions, after the burning of fossil fuels. (And remember: Deforestation does not just mean the trees are gone — it also means that the habitat of countless species has been eliminated, the surrounding communities and cultures have been altered, and the land has either been left barren, opening the door to more environmental disasters, or is housing industries that generate even more carbon emissions, such as factories and cattle ranches.)

That is why we support programs aimed at changing regulations to promote environmentally sustainable activities, as well as those that work to protect biodiverse lands — making them more valuable than the resources that could be stripped from them.

In many communities, the greatest impact on these fronts can come from empowering women, who make critical decisions about everything from how a farm operates, to which fuels are used for heating and cooking, to how values are passed along to the next generation. We support programs that empower women (through education and financial support) to effect real change in their communities — improving both the environment and the quality of life of their families and neighbors.

Fighting hunger, caring for soil, protecting forests. It's a lot to take on. Rather than imposing our values and beliefs on other people, we'll work with organizations throughout the developing world that empower local citizens to take leadership roles, protect their cultures, and strengthen their communities.

Fighting Climate Change through Advocacy

When sorting through options for making a real difference in the world, there are three main approaches: charity, development, and advocacy.

Let's say there is a struggling community of fishermen at a place called Desperation Delta. Giving fish to hungry people there is charity. Giving them nets and skills to fish, along with matching funds to build a safer harbor, is development. But what happens when nearby companies pollute the water, or climate change drives the fish to different waters?

Advocacy means lobbying governments to create legislation that protects fish during spawning season, cleans up industrial pollution, and prohibits corporations from detonating explosives that kill fish en masse. Advocacy empowers the people of Desperation Delta — who might otherwise have no voice in their government — and ensures that their needs are taken into consideration, on equal footing with corporate and special-interest lobbies.

Our $1 million annual investment in climate-smart initiatives includes generous funding for advocacy groups who ensure the environment gets a seat at the legislative table. In some cases, these groups fight poverty in the developing world — pursuing legislation that will directly improve the lives of poor people and allow them to invest in more fuel-efficient stoves, climate-smart farms, and other enhancements to both quality of life and climate protection. In other cases, these groups lobby to ensure that private interests in wealthy nations are paying their fair share to mitigate the toll their activities take on the environment. (While we do this voluntarily, many corporations do not.)

Charity and development certainly have their place. For example, when responding to a crisis, charity dollars can provide immediate help. But in most situations, advocacy is our personal choice for getting the most bang out of our philanthropic dollar.