S2, E3: How to Travel, and Soothe Your Anxiety, in a Climate-Changing World
In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, senior news editor Michelle Baran explores how we can travel safely, smartly, and compassionately in a climate-changing world.
It’s no secret that our climate is changing fast. From hurricanes to wildfires, those changes are impacting us more and more each year. In this episode of Unpacked by AFAR, senior news editor Michelle Baran shares her own experiences with climate anxiety, and talks with two experts about how we can find some peace—and travel with confidence.
Michelle Baran, host: I’m Michelle Baran, senior travel news editor here at AFAR, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel every week. Today we’re talking about travel, climate change, and the anxiety the two can create. I’ve always been a big worrier. It’s a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it means that I’m always looking out for others because I’m, well, worried about them. On the other hand, it can be a burden when thinking and writing about an issue such as climate change, which is so massive, so challenging, and often so overwhelming. I figured if I’m feeling extremely anxious and worried about climate change and the growing severity of the climate disaster as we face each year, I bet other travelers are.
Today we’re going to be talking with two experts who can help us worriers cope with and manage the new normal of navigating travel in a climate-changing world.
First, we’ll hear from my wise and hilarious psychologist friend, Sanam Hafeez, who offers some great advice on how to manage our climate anxiety. Then we’ll hear from Paul Doucet, regional director of security, intelligence, and assistance for International SOS, a global health and security risk management firm. That’s a lot of words, but basically, he helps people assess risk before traveling and get the help they need if they run into trouble on the road. He shares some super-practical tips for how to translate our climate concerns into proactive preparation and planning.
Knowledge is power. And by the end of both of these conversations, I felt I had been given some amazing new tools to add to my climate change coping toolbox.
I hope they bring you some solace as well. Let’s get going.
Michelle: Hello, Sanam and welcome to AFAR’s Unpacked podcast. So before we get into what I’m sure is gonna be a really insightful conversation about climate change, travel, and how to cope with something I’m sure a lot of travelers grapple with, which is climate anxiety, I thought it’d be fun to start by letting listeners know about how you and I know each other and actually became lifelong friends.
Sanam Hafeez: Yeah, you’re one of the best things that happened to me on my travels. I always say that. Really!
Michelle: Aww. Absolutely. And what I love is that we’re actually these two professional women. I’m a Polish Romanian journalist, you’re a Pakistani American neuropsychologist. But we met on this kind of crazy [laughs] cruise on the Mediterranean. We were both newly single, and we bonded over that experience.
Sanam: Kind of, sort of single. Like we were like in this weird gray area and—
Michelle: We bonded over that. And then we came back to New York and we basically continued friend dating after that. And yeah, we really bonded over our relationship woes and everything we were going through. But over the years, as our personal problems became less of a mess, our conversations often turned towards current events, and we spent a good deal of the pandemic dissecting what was happening in the world around us.
And for both of us, it was a time when we realized on a really personal level, how much a global crisis can affect our stress and anxiety level. So I was hoping you could describe what you and I both personally experienced during the pandemic with hair loss.
Sanam: I think overall, you and I were one of those people who took the pandemic seriously before anyone else was really taking it seriously. I was very fortunate that I was able to shift my work. I mean, I had no idea how to go remote, and so when we shut down it was like building an airplane in the air, you know, trying to figure things out. But overall, I kind of felt that this is a much-needed break.
I’m a neuropsychologist. I was trying to put a positive spin on things, and I was like, I’m fortunate that, we have enough room where we can be at home and be comfortable. The kids were on Zoom for kindergarten, so having two kindergartners—oh, pre-K at the time, actually not even kindergartners—on Zoom was just such a weird thing.
And then patients were calling and leaving messages with the answering service. I mean, no one knew what was happening. But I was kind of like, all right, this is kind of cool. This is like a new way of doing things. And you know, I’m being super mom and super psychologist and doing interviews.
And I’d just met my boyfriend, now husband, at the time. And so I also was fortunate enough to be quarantined with a partner, which was amazing. And then as I was sort of congratulating myself, I found round patches of bald spots in my head, and I guess it shows how fortunate I am that that’s how the pandemic hit me the hardest—that I lost hair. And it was so devastating once I could get over the shock, the depression, the anxiety, the fear, and it was very interesting. A day after I found it, I got a text message from Michelle, from you, saying, “Hey, you have any idea what this might be?”
Michelle: Right. And I think, you know, what’s so interesting is that we’re both really similar in the sense that it’s always like, OK, there’s this situation going on and we’re gonna go to battle. I think we’re both generally pretty positive people in the sense like, there’s all these challenges, but OK, we’re gonna pivot, the kids are home, but we’re gonna make the best of the situation.
But we’re also both empaths and I think that no matter how quote unquote under control we had this situation maybe with our own households, the situation in the world was out of control and it was absolutely impossible for us to detach ourselves from the heartbreak of that. Because we were so tuned in with everything going on, even though maybe personally we didn’t feel like we were crying and breaking down, our bodies basically told us how much we were hurting and how concerned we were and how stressful a situation that you have no control over can be.
And I bring this up because we’re about to talk a little bit more about stress and anxiety, and I think it’s just so important to understand how we do internalize these things sometimes and maybe don’t even realize how much we’re internalizing them until something like this happens. And for me it was like there was a hole on the top of my head where I used to have hair, so it was just a really striking thing that that happened. So what did you learn through that experience about the ways in which stress and anxiety manifest themselves?
Sanam: It was really an eye-opener for me because like I said, I kind of like go through life congratulating myself on how well I handle things and how nothing really gets me down for too long.
And it’s sort of become, not just my armor, but sort of like this accolade of bravery, of, you know, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. And I have all these tools. And it’s funny, when I went to see my dermatologist who ended up giving me these steroid shots, and I said, “Dr. Day, how did this happen to me? Like I wasn’t that stressed.” And she said, “Sanam, you know this better than I do. The way your body perceives stress is not the way you think you’re perceiving stress. Your body has its own way of recognizing [stress] whether it’s you not getting enough sleep, you’re not getting enough exercise, you’re not getting enough sun, you’re not getting enough downtime.”
I realized I was just going all the time. It was anywhere between doing interviews with public outlets, magazines, TV interviews, but also making sure that my mom, my sons, myself, and my boyfriend, who was often there, that the five of us had something to eat. And grocery shopping was like going to war. I mean, how is that normal? How is your body supposed to perceive any of that as anything close to normal?
Michelle: Yeah. So, as the pandemic became less all-consuming over the course of the past year and travelers started to head back into the world, a lot of us began to refocus on another, in some ways arguably much larger, challenge, which is climate change. And this year we had ample reminders of how bad global warming is and will continue to be, ranging from devastating hurricanes in Florida and the Caribbean to one natural disaster that hit particularly close to home for you this year. And that was the heartbreaking flooding in Pakistan where you and your family are from. So, what happened in Pakistan?
Sanam: This level of flooding was really unheard of, unseen, and it devastated Pakistan. Like close to 1,800 people—and I’m pretty sure, this is a conservative estimate—died in those floods, 33 million people are displaced, the damage is like $15 billion.
And I think what a lot of people don’t know is when you think of Pakistan, you don’t think of glaciers. But outside of the polar regions, Pakistan has the greatest number of glaciers of any other place in the on Earth. So all those glaciers are melting at an alarming rate and they’re causing this flooding.
And it was interesting because I’m very much in touch with family from Pakistan. And after a few weeks it seemed like everyone who was like business as normal, everyone had just kind of gone back to work, back to school, back to life. And I thought, so who are these people who are hurting?
And it was obviously, as anywhere in the world, it was the poor people. And the people who lived in areas that were untouched, out of harm’s way, who had the money to sort of just shelter till the storm passed, kind of went back to work. And what’s scary about this is just like with the COVID pandemic, the way I saw that coming. You know, again, there are people who would call this catastrophizing, but that’s what they call any scientist or anyone who predicts yes, there are things that are going to happen. Will they necessarily happen in our lifetime? Maybe not. But there’s still this weight of, this is what we’re leaving behind for our children, for the next [generation], I mean, how is this gonna work? You know, your car breaks down, you can go get another car, but when the Earth breaks down, there’s nothing else. This is it.
Michelle: Absolutely. And you know, much like with the pandemic, as you mentioned, I think that climate change can be this very daunting and overwhelming issue for a lot of people, and our responses to it vary, from shutting down and not wanting to deal to being hyper-focused on it and wanting to do as much as we can.
I’ve also heard a lot of people describe a sense of hopelessness and helplessness around the issue because they honestly just don’t know how to make an impact or what to do to help drive change. And if I’m being honest, I feel this too. As a mother, I have this deep guilt and concern about the world that we’re leaving behind for the next generation.
So, I’m hoping we can unpack these feelings a little and maybe better understand the coping mechanisms available to us as we move about the world. So, first of all, is it normal to feel completely overwhelmed by an issue like climate change?
Sanam: Yeah, very much. Because it’s such an intangible issue. Why is it that after all this time on Earth, why has it sped up in the last 30, 40 years? You know, what can we do? Is this even reversible? At least when, let’s say there’s a crisis like an earthquake or floods and you donate money and you say, “OK, you know, even if this feeds, you know, one person, I’ll feel good about that.” But with climate change, how do you contribute? What do you do?
I think the other thing is just getting bogged down and thinking that you have to be this environmental saint, which is impossible. You know, I used to drink, I used to have bottled water around and sparkling water. And I bought one of those—not Soda Stream, I bought a different brand called DrinkMate—and I make my own [sparkling] water. And so I feel like, OK, you know what, I’m no longer buying all these bottles, but up until a couple years ago I was. You can only make small changes that are pertinent to you, things that you know you contribute.
My husband, he installed one of those compostable bins and so all the food waste now goes in there, and now I don’t feel bad about throwing out, you know, peels or food that otherwise would just become part of garbage. I feel like it’s going back into the Earth. So, I think little changes, even though in the big picture, they’re not even a drop in the ocean, I feel like they make me feel OK, I’m doing what I can.
Michelle: Right, like less out of control. You obviously control your own decisions, so if you can make decisions that you feel better about so that you at least feel like you’re not a huge part of the problem, then maybe that is a way to start to move forward, past some of those sort of overwhelming feelings that a lot of people can have.
One thing that I’ve heard climate anxiety compared to is a form of grief and people feel this sort of extreme sense of grief for the planet. It seems to me like one of the first and best ways to address grief is to kind of identify that those are the emotions that you are feeling and that it’s kind of normal for processing something of this magnitude.
Sanam: Yeah, I think there are a lot of people [who will] be like, “Wait, you actually think about this so much?” You know, I think a lot of times people will avoid a conversation or a thought process like this because it’s a rabbit hole. Because once you start with something this big, before you know it, you’re envisioning one of those scenes from those movies like, you know, where the world has ended, and nothing looks the same anymore. And it is terrifying.
So, I think people don’t let themselves sit with those feelings for very long because they’re so uncomfortable. I remember this—this patient popped into my head. Several years ago I had this girl and she had a tremendous amount of catastrophic anxiety. And she said something about a tsunami stemming from the coast of Africa.
And I said, “Well, why does that worry you so much?” And she deadpan looked at me and, and genuinely said, “Because I live in New York and when the tsunami comes up, it’s going to hit New York.” And I said, “How do you know about the tsunami? Like, how come I haven’t heard of it?” And she said she watched a documentary that said that someday in the future with no certain date or timeframe, there could be a tsunami that’ll go up toward the Atlantic and she just pieced it together and thought . . . you know, that’s how anxiety works. I mean, there was nothing immediate or anything that she could really tangibly state, but her mind kind of ran away with it. And the brain has a way of catastrophizing and holding on and tightening its grip on anxiety.
And anxiety needs something to latch onto. So, I think climate change can feel a little bit like that young girl, you have no idea when it’s gonna happen. You don’t know what it’s gonna look like, but it’s overwhelming and it’s all-consuming and it’s just going to mean complete and utter devastation.
Michelle: Is there a way to move through the world in a healthy and positive way while still carrying that stress and anxiety with you? Because if there’s, you know, there’s a situation that is happening, you can either deny it or put it on the back burner, which a lot of people do. And that is certainly one coping mechanism. But if you’re unable to set it aside, but you still wanna be able to move through the world in like a healthy, positive way and not be gripped by fear and anxiety, what are some of the ways that you can do that, that you can have those things live side by side?
Sanam: Well, I mean, but we do it all the time. You know, let’s say you’re on your commute to go to work and you’re pondering and mulling over an argument you had with your spouse the night before or something, a big, you know, family crisis that’s weighing on you. When you walk in the door and your boss wants to see you, you know what?
All those worries go out the window because in that moment you’re like, “Oh sh*t, I hope I’m not getting fired.” So anxiety has a way of automatically taking a backseat and coming back to the forefront when you give it room to grow and you have the time to indulge in it and foster it and water it and, you know, give it the attention that it wants and it’s looking for.
People who are prone to anxiety will always find something to be anxious about. People who are empaths, like you said that you and I are. True empaths, I think that this is another word that kind floats around. I’ve known you long enough and really well enough to actually be able to say that, yeah, you absolutely are an empath, and so am I, very much so. But we also manage to function in the real world and manage all our responsibilities.
If we let ourselves drown in this anxiety, we wouldn’t be able to take care of, of our kids, do this podcast, pay our bills, be there for our partners. So, the only way to manage anxiety is to pay attention to other areas of your life that need attention. And when those things need attention, anxiety will have nowhere to go, but take a backseat. If you could say, “OK, well, in the big picture, I’m not gonna make a huge difference by myself, but what things are important to me? Where can I make small changes?” So, the ones that I mentioned, the reason I mentioned it is because everyone has something like that.
For instance, I still use paper towels. You know, it’s a thing. They’re not the best, but I try to go for like the biodegradable ones or the ones that are environmentally friendly, because I’m not gonna sit here and lie and say, I could just throw out paper towels—I need them. I have a home with two kids and, but you know what I do? And, and this may be the immigrant in me, if I, let’s say wipe one counter down, instead of just throwing it away, I’ll use it to wipe water somewhere else and I’ll use it five different times before it finally makes it into the garbage. So, little things like that make me feel like, OK, I’m not the worst, may not be the best, but I’m not the absolute worst.
Michelle: What about when people just feel like this extreme anger and frustration, because it’s not enough government action, it’s not enough action from private corporations and obviously these are the ones that can really move the needle, like how can they channel that into something more positive and productive?
Sanam: I mean, I think anger is actually a great emotion. I think it actually does get a lot of things moving. I felt very angry because, you know, the countries or the places on Earth that are suffering the most, especially let’s say like Pakistan, which has really bore the brunt of climate change, is responsible for less than 1 percent of it.
Whereas the countries that are really responsible, like us, you know, the Western world is not really heeding the need for change. I was watching or listening or reading about the Sharm el-Sheikh conference on climate change. And, you know, Biden went and said a whole bunch of things about climate change but didn’t actually propose a real solution. “Yes, we’re going to, you know, kind of move away from Trump and sort of pulling out of the accord.” It was like, “No, we’re back in,” but still no real movement or no real change.
And talk about reparations. Like, I feel like a country like Pakistan deserves aid to rebuild because they didn’t do what happened to them. One of the things that I came across a couple of months ago in researching for another newspaper or magazine article was the correlation between mental health, suicide, depression, and global warming.
The areas where the temperatures are going up more rapidly every year are also reporting higher suicide rates, higher depression, higher mental health problems. There is a direct correlation that they’ve been able to make with climate change. So, this isn’t a unifaceted kind of an issue. This is really impacting us on multiple levels. But the day-to-day is so busy, we’re just kind of going about our business. We have to pay the bills. I gotta pick up the kids at 3. I you know, have patients to see, I gotta cook a meal. Like who has time to invest every single day into a cause unless that is what you do for a living? And so, I think the way to move through this with your anger and frustration is to commit to small changes. Commit to electing people who have climate change on their agenda.
Michelle: In terms of breaking out of like a paralyzed state and again, I, you know, if I’m being honest, I fall into this a little bit where it feels like small actions feel too small, big actions feel out of reach, and it’s hard to make sense of it all. When somebody kind of reaches that paralyzed state where you just don’t know how to move, is there a way to break out of that? I mean, it seems like the small actions is a way to break out of that a little bit. Like, OK, just start with baby steps, you know? But sometimes if the baby steps seem too small, that also can kind of have this spiral effect of like, Why does it even matter? Why does it matter if I’m recycling or what does it matter? It’s such a drop in the bucket.
Sanam: But, but reality is, Michelle, there is no other option, you know? And if you are the kind of person who can’t break out of [it] and you can’t move on, chances are that’s how you feel about other issues in your life as well, right? As human beings, resilience is natural to us. Being able to pick up and move on is natural to us. But of course, there are those of us who really struggle with doing it.
It’s just the way we’re wired. We’re wired differently. And if you are the kind of person who feels that stuck, chances are you’re probably also that stuck in other areas of your life. And this is where a therapist comes into. This is where maybe medication comes into play. Cuz I’m willing to bet if you have that much anxiety about climate change and, and honestly, we should be anxious about climate change. This is not a small thing. I truly, genuinely feel very strongly about it, but I don’t let it consume me. When I do make decisions that are maybe, and sometimes I don’t even think about them, they may be bad for climate, I don’t beat myself up. I say “I’m gonna do what I can.” I don’t have a lot of conflicts or deep, inner demons to battle with. I just say, OK, I still have to put food on the table. I still have to pay people, I have to keep the lights on. I have things that are vying for my attention right here.
I think that that stuff keeps you humbled and real and rooted in that every human being matters on this planet, but not if you let one thing completely undo you—then you’re no good to anyone.
Michelle: Right. It seems to me in general that in order to best take care of the planet, we really need to take care, honestly, of ourselves and of our health and our mental health first, so that we can be effective stewards of the planet. Do you see a correlation there? I mean, not, I mean, it’s kind of the classic thing in any relationship. It’s like, take care of yourself first, and then you can take care of this planet that we love and cherish.
Sanam: I mean yeah, you know, when I was a kid, we traveled a lot. My dad worked for the airlines and so, you know, I remember, you would have these flight attendants that would get up there and, and do the whole thing and one of the lines they would always say is, “Before you help someone next to you, make sure you put your mask on first.” And throughout life, my dad, who worked for the airlines his whole life, always used that lingo.
He would say, “Sanam, you can’t help anyone if you are not OK.” Once you start building yourself from the inside, it’s almost like good things gravitate toward you, and it’s such a simple formula. But even people like us struggle to remember that in a time of need, but it absolutely is true. If you are taking, let’s say, if you go to the gym, you eat well, you recycle, you keep your house clean, you do the things that really make for a clean living.
Then you will automatically make choices that are also good for the planet. How could you treat your body like a temple, but not your home and then outside your home, the Earth? So yeah, the real work starts on the inside. Mental health, or access to mental health, has kind of become a luxury, sadly, because there’s such a need for it. But I think if we can invest a little bit in that, I think the other things will follow suit, especially because climate change is also so connected to mental health.
Michelle: I agree. It’s, you know, easier said than done always to take care of ourselves first. But I do think it’s such an important part of the process. I really just wanna thank you for spending some time with us.
Sanam: No, this was great. Thank you so much for having me and, and really bringing some light to, not just climate change, but also to my dear native Pakistan and the suffering of the people and the fact that this is probably going to happen again next year. And, we all have an obligation to do this. You know, it’s kind of like that saying, today’s Pakistan, tomorrow it’s gonna be another country and it might be yours or where your family is and this is not going away.
Michelle: Right. It shouldn’t have to hit so close to home to have people wake up and realize what’s going on. I mean, this is our world. The world is our backyard.
Sanam: I mean, isn’t that also what COVID showed us? It was the first time we were all impacted by the one same thing. In my lifetime, that had never happened before. There’d be a war somewhere in the world, but we’d be safe in our homes or there’d be famine somewhere, we’d be safe in our homes. We had food. For the first time we all dealt with the same exact thing, and that’s what climate change is.
Michelle: So that’s the big stuff, the ways our minds can torture us or protect us. And then there are the nuts and bolts of how to plan travel in an increasingly unpredictable world. That’s where Paul Doucet comes in. He’s the one with the long title we mentioned at the top of the episode. Basically, Paul specializes in assessing risk around the world.
The company he works for, International SOS, helps advise people on risk before they travel, and it helps them deal with trouble on the ground from medical evaluations and air ambulances to security evacuations for outbreaks of conflict. Given all that, it takes a lot to rattle him, and I knew he’d have some great advice. Now if only I could channel his calm, cool, and collected approach to travel and risk.
Michelle: I’d like to welcome Paul Doucet, regional director of security, intelligence, and assistance for International SOS, a global health and security risk management firm. So, first off, I would love to give our listeners a sense of what it is that International SOS does and the kind of services it can and does offer to travelers and businesses throughout the world.
Paul Doucet: Sure. Thanks very much for having me and happy to be discussing this with you today. So International SOS is a global company that offers a personalized risk management service in both medical and security spaces. We offer security and medical intelligence analysis, advice, and assistance to clients around the whole world. What that really means is that people use us for information and advice before they go traveling somewhere as part of their risk management programs, as part of their prevention programs to make sure that they have the right security and medical information and advice about how to manage risks in different parts of the world where they operate and travel to. So, they use us for that. And then if they do get into trouble, despite the preventative measures and information and advice that we provided, then we also provide assistance services.
And that includes everything from medical evacuations and air ambulances through to security evacuations for outbreaks of conflict and the like. And relevant to this topic today, we do an awful lot in the Americas region in particular in terms of natural disaster response and making sure that people who are affected by natural disasters have a means to get out of locations that are affected either before, say a storm hits their location, or in the aftermath of that if they need support, in terms of life support, where they’re standing fast, or to be able to leave an area where the infrastructure has been damaged and it’s no longer sustainable to stay where they are.
Michelle: Right. And so, it’s interesting because during the pandemic, of course, we reached out a lot to organizations like yours to discuss medical and healthcare services and, you know, as the pandemic got a little more under control and we were able to move throughout the world a little more safely, I think all of us started to recognize the issue with climate change a little more.
So, one thing that, you know, we think about as a travel publication is how can travelers plan in the face of disasters occurring throughout the world, definitely seemingly more so than they used to. And so, you know, I just kind of wanna get a sense from you about how do we plan in the face of uncertainty without it, you know, without it feeling like, “OK, like now I’m getting stressed out.”
Paul: Sure. Yeah, fair question. I mean, so it’s kind of hard to say precisely how someone should do that without creating stress. I mean, it depends on the person a lot, of course, and what acts as a stressor for one person versus another person. But of course, you know, best practice would dictate that you look at a situation and what the risks are.
Have a good, clear understanding of what the risks are realistically for a destination for the time of year, for the location that you’ll be in, and so on. Understanding what your options are for response or movement out of harm’s way. So, we deal with, you know, risk management in some very serious ways.
We talk a lot about natural disasters, but also a lot about, you know, outbreaks of conflict or violence, social upheaval and things like this. So, for us, I think I’ve become desensitized to it on a certain level, where for me, it doesn’t seem like a stressor at all. It’s just my job and it has been for many, many years.
Michelle: You are the model for being, you know, calm, cool, and collected.
Paul: Maybe so. But as a structure, right, so just to provide a little bit of a—like a structure of how to think about it. What we usually encourage is to look at two main factors. What’s the most likely scenario and what is a realistic worst-case scenario?
So, if you think of what’s the most likely scenario, say it’s August and you wanna go down to the Caribbean for a holiday. You know, you’re gonna be in hurricane season down there, so you plan this holiday and you say, “There’s a 50 50 chance, maybe something like that, that a hurricane will affect my trip. It’ll either be canceled before I go, or I’ll be there when the storm starts to bear down on us, and we’ll have to leave or whatever.” The worst-case scenario is, of course, you know, direct impact from a major storm and that that could happen. And so if you prepare for how you would respond in a worst-case scenario and you think about that and put in measures in place that would allow you to address your actions and behaviors that will help you in advance be ready for that kind of worst case, then anything else that might happen short of that becomes a lot easier to manage and becomes less anxiety-inducing because the most likely scenario is not the worst case.
The worst case is a low percentage that it will happen. I’ll give you another example, a personal story. So, my organization, we plan an annual conference in August as sort of a kickoff to the new financial year. And one year we were in Hawai‘i. Now, Hawai‘i doesn’t get hurricanes often. This particular year was the first year in 26 years, at the time, that a hurricane bore down on the main island of Hawai‘i, during the time we were there for the conference. It was very unlikely. Like if you had planned in advance, say this would be the worst-case scenario.
And it actually happened. But the likelihood of it was incredibly low. I mean, it hasn’t happened in more than two decades. And also that’s a full year of . . . like every year, it could happen at any point during the hurricane season. It happened to happen that very week. So, it was well planned for in the sense that we picked a very low-risk destination for the time of year, yet we were still affected by it.
We were able to evacuate ourselves without great issue, because we had all the people there who do that for a living there with us. So, it worked out quite well.
Michelle: Right! Convenient.
Paul: It was convenient, very convenient, and great training for everyone involved, right, from another standpoint.
I think the important thing is understanding, you know, what resources you have, how to access them, and what really they can do what and what part of their responsibility falls on you. So, as an individual covered by an assistance provider, it is critical that you have your own measures in place, to stay organized, to be able to provide information that’s needed for that evacuation operation to be executed.
But we don’t need to go all the way down to talking about the worst-case scenario. I do think planning for that reduces the anxiety. So, you know what you would do, even in that worst case, that could make it a little bit easier to manage cuz you understand what the process would be if things do go south on you rapidly during a trip.
Michelle: It reminds me of something that came up a lot during the pandemic, which was this idea of “It’s not going to happen to me” is not a plan. So, this idea that I’m gonna travel, I’m gonna go abroad, and I’m not gonna get COVID, or, you know, I’m not gonna have to quarantine, I’m not gonna get stuck in another country.
Like “It’s not going to happen to me” is not a good plan to have. And that was kind of something that we were trying to communicate to readers that like, do yourself a favor and don’t just assume it’s not going to happen to me because the resulting stress for when things do go wrong is much worse.
Paul: For sure. And to add on to that, I mean, I think you’ve touched on something really good, which I think a lot of people just wanna wing it and just want to sort of, you know, be out there: “I’ve traveled to a lot of places. I know how to deal with different things that can happen,” but the complacency is a killer and a lot of people have to fight that off. So, it’s important to be aware of it.
I think some interesting points to make that might also bring the point home that you’re making around, you know, you need a plan—even if you don’t think you do, you do. When it comes to climate-driven natural disasters and the changes that we’ve experienced, it is very clear.
I mean, we all know and probably all have personal anecdotes about how it’s affected us in some way or other. Some of the professional organizations that have looked at this and provided some clear information about why that’s so important, one would be NOAA, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So, they monitor very, very closely all tropical storms in the Atlantic every year in the United States Space Organization.
So, they have recently raised their baseline assumptions for every year going forward based on historical data for the number of name storms that they expect to form in the Atlantic. And they’ve raised their baseline assumption for the number of name storms that will become real hurricanes, actual hurricanes, threatening land masses.
So that’s one thing. The other thing is wildfire risks traditionally have been a four-month season. It’s now become a six-to-eight-month season as standard. So, all of these things are expanding. Again on the hurricane point, another interesting one is how these are taking place increasingly outside of their established patterns, locationally and temporarily.
I actually grew up on the east coast of Canada many, many years ago. Over there, we occasionally get hurricanes coming off the Atlantic. But we got a Category II hurricane this year. Three years ago, we had another Category I or II hurricane, I forget. And before then, it had been 17 years since the previous one and before that one, it had been about 25 years since we’d received one.
So small sample size, but a clear increasing trend of hurricanes maintaining their strength going further and further north. On the other side of it, down south, we’ve increasingly seen storms form further south. Sometimes skirting the north coast of Venezuela at almost reaching hurricane strength, which is unusual, that does not fit the pattern. That’s further south than those have traditionally formed.
There’s a lot of places down in that area that are not ready for hurricanes to hit them because it’s not traditionally been in the hurricane pathways. Places like Trinidad, Tobago, Aruba, you know, the city of Caracas, Guyana as well is near there. So, there’s lots of locations that might be seeing that.
The main point here, we should all kind of expand the parameters that we think natural disasters can occur within. There’s a greater spectrum now that we should assume to be at risk from these kind of climate-driven disasters.
Michelle: Right. And that’s interesting cuz I was going to ask about sort of, are there certain destinations that we should avoid at certain times of year because we do know about certain patterns? And it’s interesting because you know, to your point, yes, there are patterns and yes, of course it’s smart to understand those patterns because that is a critical part of the risk calculus.
But the patterns are changing. So, it’s interesting to think about that. Like, if you think you’re going to a safe zone in this changing world, you also should be thinking about just having some safeguards in place just in case because weather patterns are changing so drastically.
Paul: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I think it is two-pronged thing, right? It’s your own personal planning and your own personal sort of state of mind about the risk. But then yeah, what is available resource-wise locally? So, the Caribbean’s an easy example, right? It’s a lot of countries, a lot of different, in different governments, different environments.
So Dominican Republic is one that’s relatively big, relatively well resourced and gets hit by hurricanes every single year. I mean, every hotel knows exactly what to do. Every hotel has backup generators. Every hotel has, you know, double-glazed windows that can withstand hurricane winds. They’re built for that.
They’re ready for that. They stockpile supplies because they have to, because they’re very, very accustomed to it. If you go to another location where that’s not the case at all, further south in the Caribbean, that gets very few hurricanes and you get unlucky and receive one. I mean, go back to my example of Hawai‘i.
I remember walking around seeing in Honolulu these glass-front storefronts and hotels where the glass is right down to the ground. They had one line of sandbags about two inches high as all they had as flood prevention measures, because they never get this kind of activity. Who’s gonna invest in having those things on hand when this just never happens to them?
So, they’re just not ready. And so their ability to support you, the inherent local capability to support you in those events is far, far lower than it would be in a place that gets them more regularly. So yeah, you’re a little bit more at risk in those places that are a little bit outside or adjacent to the established patterns.
Michelle: So when these climate-related disasters affect our trips, I think one thing that has always been confusing to me, and I’ve been covering travel for 15 years, so I’m sure it’s confusing for the average traveler, is kind of what are the different levels of coverage and where does travel insurance fit in versus a company like International SOS? What degree of help and assistance and coverage should you be . . . you know, how should you think about it?
Paul: Sure. So, think of it as a triangle. At one point of the triangle is you, at one point of the triangle is your insurer. And at one point of the triangle is an assistance company like International SOS. So, what we do is ensure that you get the best service for the situation that you’re in. So, if you’re a patient, let’s say you’re traveling somewhere, you have a health condition, absent any financial considerations, we will make a recommendation that is what is just purely what is best for the client in a completely agnostic, apolitical, neutral way, without any other consideration, here’s what is best for the patient, given the situation, given where they are, capability of the medical infrastructure, where they are, and so on.
So, with all that in mind, we then provide the service that is required to you, often embedded with your insurance so that we ensure the coverage for what we’re doing is also provided, and that relationship is often held between us and the insurer.
So, certainly having financial coverage is critical and I think that’s very standard globally that everyone will have financial coverage for disasters. But of course, if you are going to certain places, like we’re talking about, that are a little bit outside established patterns, you might wanna make sure that that insurance does apply to disasters in a given location that you may be traveling to.
Where we come in is as the agnostic provider of assistance purely based on needs and requirements to make sure that we get people the best results that we can for their health and for their safety.
Michelle: Is your service also available in the planning process? Cuz it seems like it would be really valuable to be able to sort of do a risk assessment before going somewhere.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. So, we’ve been talking about sort of the emergency side of it, so when things go wrong side of it, that’s like maybe 1 percent of our business. The 99 percent of our effort is on exactly what you’re talking about, which is that preventative side. So, people contact us for information and advice about where they want to go.
So, we provide professional intelligence, security intelligence and medical intelligence, and advice that goes with it. We don’t do a lot in the leisure space, so, you know, “Where should I take my holiday?” isn’t really what we do. It’s more, you know, “What are the risks for deployment to a certain location or for business travel to a certain location?” is more typically what we do. We do also support individuals who want to have our coverage and access to our information and so on for their personal trips too.
So, yes, we do everything from that early risk assessment with advice. We do trigger warning systems, so we set up documents that look at, if this trigger happens, what should you do about it? If this other event happens, what should you do about it? We’ll do escalation planning on a larger scale, so how to evacuate a whole organization of people? And on a personal level, we provide training. So, we provide individualized, if you like, natural disaster–specific or just other security training. How to make sure you stay safe while you’re traveling, including at high and extreme risk locations.
We also provide network support, so through local network of providers on the ground. This includes security companies, transport companies, secure hotels that we’ve gone and assessed ourselves: medical facilities, clinics and hospitals, dentists, psychiatrists, you name it, we do it. So, all that kind of stuff is part of the network service that we provide referrals to those.
And all of those organizations, those types of like hospitals, providers that I mentioned are all those that we have actually gone to that location, visited, and accredited in-person ourselves. In most cases, we’ve used the services of those organizations and we know exactly what that looks like and we’ve assessed it against our standards, which are very sophisticated.
I mean, a hotel security assessment, for example, is about an 11-page document that we go through a huge checklist of things to determine whether a hotel’s acceptable or not from a security standpoint in a given location. With all that in mind, I mean, some of the basic tips that I think might be more sort of tangible takeaways for the listeners, can be things about, you know, what decisions do they make in general and on the topic of climate change and weather-related disruptions and so on, I think one of the biggest ones is to choose your accommodation wisely. Wherever you’re going, where you stay is a huge effect on your ability to mitigate the risks that you’re facing. So, you can call ahead to hotels and say, what do you have in place in terms of risk mitigation? What do you have in place in terms of procedural response, when it comes to say, any kind of emergency, whether it’s a fire in the hotel or whether it’s a hurricane hitting the island? What do you have in terms of backup generators? What do you have in terms of, you know, the window standards to prevent breakage in high-wind situations? Do you have stockpiles of essential provisions that we can take advantage of should we need to stay in the room for two days and not go out because the infrastructure’s gone or whatever—we have to wait a long time for a flight, for example.
So having that good capability, and I think also being tied into some local networks and knowing kind of before you go exactly who I’d call, for what, if a worst-case scenario happened.
So where, what resources do you have, how would you access those resources? Having some backup communications is also always a good thing for the ability to contact providers and having flexible bookings as well, right? So, if you know you’re going somewhere that is at risk of this, making sure you’re not booking, you know, tickets that you can’t change without paying double or something.
That’s always a practical tip as well.
Michelle: Right, right. And the flexible booking is actually interesting because weather is not traditionally covered like by the airlines, you know. It’s considered an event that is beyond their control. So, this is really important, I think in this climate-changing world, there’s so many travel disruptions that can be attributed to weather and, at that point, the airlines, you know, they’re out. Weather is not something that they cover. So that, I think, is just really important for travelers to keep in mind.
I’m just curious since, you know, in dealing with, you know, the planning phase and people, you know, especially now with like business travel coming back and in-person meetings and events, returning, do you find climate events being a larger part of those conversations than they were in the past?
Paul: Uh, yes. In a word, yes. It absolutely is, yeah. I mean, yeah, we see it all the time. We see it all the time that people are worried about natural disasters, first and foremost, especially like, say within the United States. If you think about it in a global picture, United States is actually interesting: one of the countries most impacted by natural disasters of almost any location in the world. I’m quite a global citizen. I’ve lived in about seven different countries and traveled to more than 80. I think of the Philippines and the United States as the two countries that are most affected by almost every different type of natural disaster.
You have hurricane risks, you have earthquake risks on the West Coast. You have extreme heat, you have extreme cold, you have tornadoes through the center. Flooding risks in a lot of different locations, so there’s just almost every different type of natural disaster. There’s volcanoes as well within the United States contiguous territory. So, there’s just almost every—
Michelle: We have it all!
Paul: Yeah, you got it all. Yeah. So the Philippines as well is just right in the crosshairs every year of typhoon season in the Pacific. They also have flooding problems often. They have volcanoes that are very active. They have earthquakes on a very regular basis. They just also have it all right. It’s a little bit different, but partly because the U.S. just covers such a large amount of territory that it has this incredible diversity right within its very large borders.
So anyway, back to the question though about how it factors into planning for large events. I mean, we see it in our own planning and our clients talk to us about it all the time, is that it rises to prominence as probably the number one thing.
You can’t do anything if a storm’s gonna engulf an entire city and the hotel that you’re in is in that city. It’s just gonna happen. So having good response and planning around what to do in that scenario is primary.
Michelle: I’m just curious if there are also destinations. I mean, we’ve talked about, you know, the, these two destinations that are affected by a kind of large swath of different disasters. Are there destinations that you see that are quieter?
Paul: Absolutely. I mean, there’s lots of parts of the world that are say outside of any major storm pathways, and that’s very well mapped. I mean, you can in two seconds on Google, find a map of exactly what locations are in typical tropical storm paths and that it may also be not in an earthquake zone, and that may not also have necessarily extremes of either side of the climate spectrum. So no extreme heat, no extreme cold. There’s quite a few places in the world that are like this.
I mean, I would say Argentina may be one. I mean they certainly have some earthquake risk, but not major and they aren’t in any storm pathways or anything like that. There’s parts of the Middle East that have some extreme heat issues part of the year, but they’re quite well managed—dry heat and they’re quite able to manage it—and they don’t really have anything else [other than] sandstorms occasionally.
There’s parts of northern Europe, I would say are relatively immune to this. There’s probably parts of Africa with drought being an issue in some places, but there’s a lot of areas of the world that, you know, don’t really have this consistent impact felt from different types of climate-related disaster.
And that doesn’t mean to say that they won’t ever. As we talked about, these things keep evolving and keep changing as the climate changes.
Michelle: Yeah. And I feel like that is one way that travelers for whom this does feel overwhelming, they could speak with like an organization like yours or do their research to find places where the likelihood isn’t as high. You know, trying to approach things maybe from a practical point of view to help ease maybe some of the anxiety of, OK, it’s not everywhere in the whole world all the time.
So, it sounds like there are certain regions where the impact, at least thus far, is not as severe as other places, just due to these certain storm patterns and again, geography. And so that’s hopeful, at least.
Paul: Yeah, and especially if we include seasonality into that. So, you know, there’s certain parts of the world that are also far, far safer in different seasons. I mean, Florida, for example, is one of the most consistently impacted locations in the world by hurricanes. But in this time of year, in January, there’s almost zero risk of that happening.
And in fact, it’s a lovely time to visit. It’s mostly like, even though there’s established patterns, what we’re talking about in terms of the evolution of changing patterns is really the immediate adjacencies to the established pathways. It’s not changing so dramatically that places that, you know, totally have never experienced a hurricane in a thousand years are suddenly gonna have one.
Michelle: Right, right. And one thing, you know, that I also think about, I live in California, so obviously I think a lot about wildfires. I live in Northern California and it’s been a challenging past decade. But I also, what gives me some sense of hope, is learnings.
You do see some efforts that are made to say, “OK, we can’t have another year like this.”
Paul: Without a doubt. Yeah, without a doubt, people are looking for ways, always to respond better to these things, to all different manner of natural disaster risks.
Michelle: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for carving out some time to speak with us and I think it’s some really helpful advice and information. I always say “Knowledge is power,” so I do appreciate you helping to shed some light on this very complicated topic of climate change and how it relates to travel. So, thanks again for joining us, Paul, and I think that’s it.
Paul: Thanks so much for having me. Appreciate the conversation.
Michelle: Thanks for listening, everyone. If you wanna hear more from me, you can find me unpacking daily breaking news and travel intel stories on afar.com. Be sure to sign up for our free newsletter to get travel news delivered straight to your inbox at email.afar.com. And you can follow my travel exploits with my two boisterous young travel companions who, yes, I worry about a lot, on Instagram at @MichelleHallBaran.
You can find more great advice from Sanam on topics ranging from anxiety to mental health challenges on Instagram @Dr.SanamHafeez, and International SOS has a great blog on its website, internationalsos.com, which covers many helpful travel topics like how to navigate natural disasters, health risks, and crises throughout the world.
This season, we’d also like to hear from you. Is there a travel dilemma, topic, or trend you’d like us to unpack? Visit afar.com/feedback or email us at email@example.com to share what’s on your mind. Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter.
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