Freefall Global Warming

Is Record Warmth Melting Tourism’s Future in Austria?

News | Mazin Elfehaid, Lucas Jakobsson | December 2006 / January 2007

With the warmest fall season ever recorded in Austrian history behind us, the reality of climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.   The average temperature this fall has been a balmy 12.4 degrees Celsius—warm enough for people to keep riding their bikes, stroll around town in a light coat and even save some money on heating costs.  For those people who earn their living at a desk, it has been a boon – an ‘eternal summer’ worthy of poetry.

The farmers, insurance companies and ski resorts don’t feel so lucky.

"No one… is as dependent on climactic influences as the farmers," said Franz Grillitsch, head of Austrian lobbying group Forum Land in a speech last year. "Winter sports, climate change and the agricultural sector all have a common destiny."

According to the Austrian Hail Insurance Company (Hagelversicherung GmbH), which insures farmers and crops, up to 80 percent of agricultural products are dependent on weather conditions.  In the last 45 years, the company estimates, damages from natural phenomena have increased by three hundred percent in their sector, with claims in Austria doubling between 2005 and 2006 alone.

Things have been manageable so far.  The agricultural sector could deal with a temperature increase of about two degrees, land usage expert Günther Fischer told the ORF recently. After that, all further effects will be negative. Agriculture will probably have to move further north, as colder areas such as Siberia and Canada become more arable.

The tourist industry in Austria will be even harder hit.  At the traditional start of the ski season, December 1, there was not enough snow on the mountains even for a snowball fight.  Several days of at least zero-degree temperature are required for snow to stay on the mountains.  But temperatures like these even make the snow-cannons useless.

And worse is yet to come.  According to Vienna scientist Helga Kromp-Kolb in an interview with the daily Österreich, the next couple of decades will see an increase by about one degree, with the potential of reaching four degrees by 2050.

"The summers will be hot and dry, rivers will have less water.  Days with temperatures of about 30 degrees will occur more often, and the duration of snow cover in the winter will be reduced," she said. There will continue to be years with good ski seasons in Austria, she said, but they will not come as regularly.

This is worrisome news to an industry that brings in a large share of Austria’s tourists, and employs 150,000 people, or about 5 percent of the workforce - with revenues of 9.77 billion Euro in 2005.  Canceled hotel reservations are already rolling in, and some people are saying that maybe it’s time to diversify.

"In the long term, we have to invest more in the culinary and cultural aspects [of tourism]," Fabienne Edenhauser of Tiroler Werbung told Österreich.

Increasingly, ski resorts have started planning hiking trails and golf courses, which they can fall back on in case there is no snow.

Situated in the center of Europe, Austria is expected to be among the most insulated against climactic shifts.  Other countries, in the North and South of Europe, will be harder hit.  Some cities in Italy have begun supplying older people with air conditioners, because the summer months can become so unbearable.  And it was only last year that more than 100 people in Genoa were hospitalized after toxic warm-water algae started appearing for the first time on the city’s beaches.

In Sweden, scientists studying the ticks carrying Lyme disease have seen an increase directly related to the warming of the weather.  The ticks can only live in areas where the winters are warm and short, weather not common to many parts of Sweden.

"Variations in climate have had a very noticeable impact," Elisabeth Lindgren of the University of Stockholm told the International Herald Tribune late last year.  "We’re seeing disease in areas where we’ve never had it before, as well as more cases in areas where it previously existed."

What’s more, it is widely predicted that Europe will be one of the least affected areas in the world, with the poorer countries in Africa and Asia getting the brunt of it. So whatever problems we face, others will be far worse off,

"The problem is clear to economists," Joseph Stiglitz wrote in a recent column in Der Standard.  "The polluters are not carrying the full costs for their damages."

Efforts are already underway in some countries to force politicians to put global warming at the top of their agendas.  A blizzard of unimaginable strength hit Scandinavia in October, putting the region under a blanket of snow and closing roads, railways, factories and power plants.  This prompted Aftonbladet, Sweden’s most widely circulated newspaper, to use its own Internet ad space to flash pictures of environmental catastrophes from all over the world.

Just a few weeks later, over 315,000 people had signed an online petition, pledging to save energy and live "greener."  In it they promise to buy new, energy-friendly appliances, switch to natural gas-powered cars, use public transportation more often and wear warmer clothes instead of turning up the heat.

People are also flocking to Green Parties around the world.  In Austria, for instance, the increased support for "Die Grünen" is pronounced.  In 1983, at their entry onto the political stage, they received only 3.4 percent of the votes, not even enough to enter parliament.  In this year’s October elections they received a record 11 percent, and 14.63 percent in Vienna.

With climate change upon us, it is clear that cutting emissions isn’t the only solution, but that changes in lifestyle have become a necessity.

"Unless we act now," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, "and not some time distant but now, these consequences disastrous as they are, will be irreversible." His government’s recent study on global warming, that has alarmed governments across Europe, suggested that the only way to solve this problem was by dedicating a full one percent of worldwide GDP to aggressive solutions — or risk facing problems that will take at least five times that amount to solve.

"The question isn’t if we can afford to do anything about global warming anymore," Stiglitz wrote, "but if we can afford to not do anything about it."

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