After everyone re-emerges from Hurricane Sandy, after 375,000 evacuees return to New York City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reopens the subway system, it’s essential that we think about how this kind of bizarrely severe weather is caused or worsened by climate change. And consider whether the meetings industry can act like it’s business as usual when the most basic supports we take for granted are in chaos.
We know so far that the storm was super-charged by above-average ocean temperatures off the U.S. Northeast and driven ashore by extremely high atmospheric pressure near Greenland. It may yet combine with unusually early snow converging from the west. The winds and rain battering eastern North America as you read this—or that might prevent you from reading if power lines are down in your area—are the most immediately scary aspect of a tropical storm that has been declared the largest in Atlantic Basin history.
What’s scarier, if we hope to solve the climate challenge in our lifetimes, is the high proportion of news reports that leave out the connection between severe weather and climate change. And the media are not alone. The U.S. has just been through three presidential debates in which neither candidate mentioned what is arguably the most serious threat facing humanity.
The meetings industry isn’t doing much better. We talk a good line about “greening” our operations. We take little steps like introducing linen reuse programs (for all the good they usually do) or putting recycling bins in guest rooms, and when a property reduces its energy use by five, 10, or 20 percent, we’re thrilled. And rightly so, as long as we understand these improvements as a good start: What worries me are the conversations with planners and suppliers who think they’ve done all they need to do about sustainability, that it’s time to put a check-mark in the box and move on.
Here’s the problem: We’re on a 2050 deadline to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent in industrialized countries to have a realistic chance of controlling runaway climate change. Rather than making a serious effort to be a part of that solution, the meetings industry—particularly on the supplier side—seems to have a hard-wired incentive to smile it away: A CVB in a coastal hurricane zone may think it can attract more business for next year by putting the word out that everything’s okay, rather than developing an excellent emergency management plan and taking well-deserved credit for it.
But this week, the focus will be on the emergency plan—and if planners are doing their due diligence, the destinations that come away with positive profile will be the ones that show the best preparation and the greatest resilience. It’s too soon to say how many meeting facilities will end up in Hurricane Sandy’s path, or how many meetings and participants will be affected. For all the emphasis the industry rightly places on measuring its economic impact, we have no idea how much of that impact will be put at risk. I can’t imagine who in the industry would gather the information, even though every meeting planner should be clamoring for it. We do know that Hurricane Irene caused $15 billion in damage last year, and Sandy could be far worse.
So batten down the hatches, everyone. Take care. Be safe. But after it’s over, take the time to ponder how change can happen in an industry that depends far too heavily on over-air-conditioned buildings, energy-intensive supply chains, and fuel-guzzling aircraft operated by greenwashing airlines. We do have time to adapt to climate change and prevent its worst effects. What we don’t have is time to waste.